Monday, 16 July 2018, is a turning point in the affairs of men. But the lexicon and orthodox canon of Western progressivism aren’t able to frame or describe the event in a useful way. Trump’s critics aren’t having the exploding-head reaction because of what he actually said, but because of what their ears heard him say, through a filter of orthodoxy which they are simply incapable of removing.
We’ve been hearing about the joint Trump-Putin press conference all day. The refrain from every side is the same: Trump was soft on Putin, and he “slammed,” or at least failed to back up, his own intelligence agencies regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election.
There is no need to document chapter and verse on all the high-profile figures who have come out to say Trump needs to walk this back. That has been done elsewhere, and I commend examples to your perusal (and here, and here for reactions from Twitter polloi).
But it is far, far more important for you to read what Trump actually said in the press conference (link below). The importance of doing that cannot be overemphasized. I think it is better, in fact, to read what he said, rather than trying to take it in and reflect on it from watching Trump in a video.
You will find, if you listen to Trump’s words, that he did not “slam” his intelligence agencies. He didn’t even directly address whether Putin sought to interfere in the 2016 election (although he did say Putin’s denial of that was “strong and powerful.” No, those aren’t the adjectives I would choose, but Trump rarely uses the adjectives I would choose for any topic. Neither did Obama, for that matter).
It’s what Trump did do that has everyone in a tizzy. Trump broke with the ruling narrative that what Russia may have done in 2016 affected the U.S. election, in such a way that the effects justify a year and a half and counting of self-imposed political paralysis for the American nation.
Trump didn’t speak in pious, litmus-test terms of what Russia did. Merely doing that would have satisfied his more mainstream, mostly half-hearted supporters. (Nothing will ever satisfy his critics.) But Trump didn’t do that.
He took this opportunity to make his strategic break with the narrative. And that is big. But to believe that it means Trump is in Russia’s pocket, you have to believe a whole warehouse full of facts not in evidence.
Of course Russia tried to do something – it’s not clear what – to “interfere with” the U.S. election. Russia has been doing that for just shy of 100 years; why should 2016 be any different? The U.S. intelligence community assessment on Russian interference in 2016 made reference to the extensive history of Russian efforts to inject disinformation and divisive themes into foreign politics, including American politics and American elections. That history was a major basis for the assessment about 2016, and that’s legitimate. But it doesn’t prove anything about any specific purpose for hacking the Democratic computer systems – much less prove that the hacking in question had any effect on the election.
Indeed, the leaders of the U.S. intelligence community have said repeatedly that they can’t draw any connection between the Russian actions they believe to be documented and the outcome of the election. One need not accept every conclusion they have presented about the facts, per se, to agree that that is a carefully framed, responsible on-the-record statement.
Trump didn’t bother to make the case I just made, however. I imagine the reason is that he wanted to say what he wanted to say. He understands the importance of getting your own message across in the limited time in which you have people’s attention.
The observers of the Trump presidency continue to want something they are never going to get, and that’s a copy of Trump’s “OPLAN”; i.e., his operational plan, the blueprint that clarifies what all his operational movements are about. I’m not sure why they expect that, after eight years of Delphic obfuscation from the Obama administration, but it’s what they’re looking for.
What we get instead is a series of tactical signals when Trump does make a move. We just got a big one. Trump has cut the cord and declared his independence from the Russiagate narrative. He isn’t going to pay it homage anymore, or behave as if it has proved more than it has, or racked up any successes that justify ruling our affairs by it.
Trump did this in his usual jarring, even disjunctive manner. I have no idea if this is calculated or not, but ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Trump’s method was to shift the focus, via the answers he gave in the press conference, from “what Russia did” to the holes in the narrative about the effects Russia is supposed to have had.
That’s why I say he didn’t slam his intelligence agencies. He slammed the narrative. It’s not the intelligence that justifies the Mueller probe. It’s the construction put on the intelligence by the Russiagate narrative.
Trump decided that while he had the world’s attention, he was going to reject that construction imposed by the narrative.
Trump, in his own words
I strongly suggest reading the entire transcript (here). I present the relevant excerpts from Trump’s answers to media questions below.
Try to listen for what Trump says, and not what the media tell you it means when Trump says something. Trump means what he says.
He proved on Monday that he does not constrain himself to speak in the terms of anyone else’s narrative. That’s why his critics are so freaked out: because they can’t see outside their own narrative. But Trump lives, breathes, and thinks outside of it.
The first excerpt (my comments in brackets/italics; emphasis in Trump’s statements added in bold):
[TRUMP] I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated. There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it. People are being brought out to the fore. So far that I know, virtually, none of it related to the campaign. [Talking about (a) the old charges against Manafort, and (b) the process crimes – false statements – with which others are charged. This statement would exclude the indicted Russians, but that’s fair since they were not involved with U.S. managers of the political campaigns.] They will have to try really hard to find something that did relate to the campaign. That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily and, frankly, we beat her. And I’m not even saying from the standpoint — we won that race. It’s a shame there could be a cloud over it. People know that. People understand it. The main thing — and we discussed this also — is zero collusion. It has had a negative impact upon the relationship of the two largest nuclear powers in the world. We have 90 percent of nuclear power between the two countries. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.
REPORTER (Jeff Mason from Reuters): For President Putin if I could follow up as well. Why should Americans and why should President Trump believe your statement that Russia did not intervene in the 2016 election given the evidence that US Intelligence agencies have provided? Will you consider extraditing the 12 Russian officials that were indicted last week by a US Grand jury.
TRUMP: Well I’m going to let the president answer the second part of that question.
As you know, the concept of that came up perhaps a little before, but it came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election, which frankly, they should have been able to win, because the electoral college is much more advantageous for Democrats, as you know, than it is to Republicans. [The bolded passage is the key. The narrative holds that Russian interference had something to do with the Democrats losing. That’s why Trump brings it up, and rejects the point. He’s not rejecting the claims about Russian interference here; in fact, he and Putin both said they talked about that subject at length. Trump is rejecting the narrative’s proposition that Russian interference was a reason for the Democratic loss.] We won the electoral college by a lot. 306 to 223, I believe. That was a well-fought battle. We did a great job.
Frankly, I’m going to let the president speak to the second part of your question. But, just to say it one time again and I say it all the time, there was no collusion. I didn’t know the president [Putin]. There was nobody to colluded with. There was no collusion with the campaign. Every time you hear all of these 12 and 14 — it’s stuff that has nothing to do — and frankly, they admit, these are not people involved in the campaign. But to the average reader out there, they are saying, well maybe that does. It doesn’t. Even the people involved, some perhaps told mis-stories. In one case the FBI said there was no lie. There was no lie. Somebody else said there was. [This would be a reference to Michael Flynn, about whom the FBI agents who interviewed him in January 2017 said immediately afterward that they didn’t perceive him to be lying.] We ran a brilliant campaign. And that’s why I’m president.
The final excerpt:
[REPORTER (Jonathan Lemire from AP)] … My first question for you, sir [Trump], is who do you believe? My second question is would you now with the whole world watching tell President Putin — would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?
TRUMP: So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the democratic national committee? I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server and what is the server saying? With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others and said they think it’s Russia. [Trump is questioning the factual basis of the narrative here: the conclusion that the Russians intruded in Democratic (and Republican) systems, made without U.S. law enforcement ever actually examining the systems. Of his comments on Monday, this passage and the next paragraph are the ones that most strongly challenge the narrative.]
I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. [Trump means here that Putin says Russia was not behind the hacking of Democratic systems. Trump is NOT saying there was no attempt by Russia to affect the election. Trump is still on the server.] I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server. But I have confidence in both parties. I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They’re missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? 33,000 emails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails. So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that president Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.
For reference, I don’t trust Putin any further than I could throw him. But that was also true back when Obama was asking Dmitri Medvedev to pass on to Vlad that he, Barack, would be more flexible after winning the 2012 election. I don’t know if the Russians were behind the DNC hack – no definitive, incontrovertible, non-circumstantial evidence has been presented in that regard. They certainly could have been behind it. If the intel community had presented such evidence to Trump — i.e., evidence that couldn’t be revealed to the public — I assume he would give that considerable weight.
But Trump is right that to answer that question with the level of certainty our republic deserves, with a prolonged legal probe now opened and after all this political pain, the “DNC server” must be produced, and examined by the due-process squad of experts – and not a commercial firm hired by Trump’s political opponents.
Critics will ask why Trump chose to make this point in a high-profile summit with Putin. The answer is that that’s where he had to make it. Made in that venue, Trump’s declaration of independence from the Russiagate narrative is a signal that he and his presidency are not ruled by it. Trump cannot be boxed in by convention and a calendar of events to make ritual obeisance to a narrative that is trying to poison and paralyze his work in office.
He has probably always foreseen that a significant one-on-one with Putin would present this decision point for him. Trump decided to go on offense and cut the narrative adrift.
That looks alarmingly unconventional to a lot of people. And I understand that. It looks unconventional to me too. It doesn’t cause me to give a MAGA! cheer, as it does others; there are a number of things I would be doing differently if I were in charge (starting with Syria, but by no means ending there).
But this will change the terms of what everyone is talking about. Trump invariably has that effect. I suspect he has just made the kill shot to the narrative that his supporters have been waiting for — abruptly, from left field, in an unexpected way. It will take time for it to die, and it may yet generate frantic noise. But its power has been broken.
Trump is actually right that the Russiagate narrative is the biggest problem for America and our global posture right now, and it has to be neutralized. There is no rational premise behind this narrative, and there never has been. It is nothing but political poison. On Monday, Trump conveyed that he will not be held in thrall to it: he will not mouth platitudes that bolster it, and all his counterparts around the globe should understand that.
Those last few words are the key. Listen to one last point from Trump’s comments in Helsinki:
As president, I cannot make decisions on foreign policy in a futile effort to appease partisan critics or the media or Democrats who want to do nothing but resist and obstruct.
Trump means here that he has no intention of being weakened and hamstrung by the opponents who built the Russiagate narrative. He means he is not.
Trump’s main intended audience for that point was not the Democrats or the media at home. His main intended audience was Vladimir Putin.