Wittes et al. — About that Explosive Trump Story: Take a Deep Breath

First, we have no idea if any of these allegations are true. Yes, they are explosive; they are also entirely unsubstantiated, at least to our knowledge, at this stage. For this reason, even now, we are not going to discuss the specific allegations within the document.

Second, while unproven, the allegations are being taken quite seriously. The President and President-elect do not get briefed on material that the intelligence community does not believe to be at least of some credibility. The individual who generated them is apparently a person whose work intelligence professionals take seriously. And at a personal level, we can attest that we have had a lot of conversations with a lot of different people about the material in this document. While nobody has confirmed any of the allegations, both inside government and in the press, it is clear to us that they are the subject of serious attention.

Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Quinta Jurecic — About that Explosive Trump Story: Take a Deep Breath, Lawfare

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73 thoughts on “Wittes et al. — About that Explosive Trump Story: Take a Deep Breath

  1. FWIW, Kevin Drum reminded people that the Buzzfeed stuff is supposedly raw intelligence takes. 2/3rds of it is probably wrong, because raw intelligence is often wrong. (That’s why they mush it together with lots of other raw intelligence and look for overlaps and corroboration).

    Of course, you can pick any 1/3 you like and it’s damning stuff, so for the sake of the country we should hope it’s all wrong.

    Like I’ve said in other places though — the real issue is that none of this really seems out of character for Trump. The man who bragged about sexual assault and creeped on underage pageant contestants. The man who publicly asked Russia to hack Clinton. The man who decided he’ll be the first candidate since Nixon to withhold his tax returns. The man who still hasn’t taken a single move to isolate himself from his businesses. The man whose sole contribution to the GOP platform was softening the GOP stance on Russia’s Ukraine fun.

    The man who has only met one position he won’t drop, even when it hurts him: His deep admiration for Putin.

    There are relatively innocent reasons for all of this, or ones that involve his staff and not him, but the problem is similar to “appearance of impropriety” Trump acts like a man who has something to hide when it comes to Russia.

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      • A suicide bomber who doesn’t get close enough to his/her victim makes just as much noise as one who does.

        We’ve heard a loud noise and are now waiting for the smoke to clear.

        In any case, I’m pretty sure that the damage to Buzzfeed is substantial. Even if Buzzfeed doesn’t know it yet.

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    • The Trump team’s influence on the platform is not that clear (PolitiFact), but circumstantial evidence suggests his supporters softened the language calling for the U.S. to arm Ukraine in its fight against Russia, saying instead America will provide “appropriate assistance” to Ukraine and “greater coordination with NATO defense planning.” The reason that there was attention paid to this is because arming Ukraine was an amendment to the original platform, and then it was softened/withdrawn and the delegate advocating arming Ukraine (a Ted Cruz supporter) complained to the media about it.

      Does it matter if Trump’s language was more sane? The same position as Obama’s? Or more popular?

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      • I think it matters only insofar as Trump has been consistently pro-Russia. It’s one of the few stances he’s never flip flopped on.

        I think more telling was the fact that he felt he had to lie about his Russian investments in today’s presser. (His own son admitted they had a disproportionate investment in Russia back in 2008, and Manafort, Carter, and Flynn all have heavy ties there).

        I mean that’s the thing about this story, about the steady drumbeat of leaks. They’re not inventing Russian ties — Trump is covered in them. It’s more about why and what it means.

        For whatever reason, Trump is incredibly pro-Russia. Whether it’s because of natural inclination or blackmail, it’s one of his few firm stances. His entourage is heavily influenced by Russia — employed by, invests in, or does work for. None of that is normal.

        A highly unpopular President elect with serious ties to a foreign country that interfered in the election to help him? You don’t even need blackmail stories to make that sound corrupt and dangerous.

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      • Good point PDShaw… If there’s one thing I hope doesn’t happen in all this nonsense is that somehow the Democrats embrace the McCain stance on arming the Ukraine and giving them a blank check… simply because it is a not-Trump position.

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        • When have the Democrats ever been victims of their own version of Cleek’s law? When they implemented the Heritage health care plan perhaps? So it’s weird you take the time to worry about whether the powerless minority will fall victim to a mental quirk their opponents are known for and…somehow not alter policy with their total lack of power or something? I dunno.

          Seems like worrying that my kid has an unreliable attitude towards safety checks of his nuclear weapons. he doesn’t have any, and he’s generally pretty good about the big things anyways. But also he has no nukes.

          Anyways, I don’t see any denial of the central point: One of the few consistent things about Trump has been his heavily pro-Russia stance. Whether it’s because of natural inclination, blackmail, having an incredibly pro-Russia staff, or what — it’s one of the few things he would go to bat for.

          For whatever reason, Trump LOVES Russia and LOVES Putin. Can anyone deny that?

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        • If there’s one thing I hope doesn’t happen in all this nonsense is that somehow the Democrats embrace the McCain stance on arming the Ukraine and giving them a blank check

          Interestingly, Tillerson said that he been Sec of State a few years ago his policy re: Russia in Ukraine would have been basically that: arm ’em up, back the Ukraine gummint, send in US air and intelligence support.

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  2. Agreed that for the country’s sake this stuff should be disproven.

    But the best we can realistically hope for is that this demonstrates that there will be exactly the same kind of wild-ass conspiracy theory stuff served up to Republicans in power as were served up to Democrats in power for the last years, only this time the complex phrase “conspiracy theories” will be reduced to the monosyllabic “fake news.”

    But 2016 taught me that when you sit back and hope for the realistic best result, it’s quite likely that you’re going to be disappointed bigly.

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    • Isn’t there a demonstrable difference between stuff that is made up out of thin air (“Obama was born in Kenya!”) and stuff that is being generated via intelligence community professionals?

      I mean, if the allegations are proven false and Dems are still running with them, then maybe we can make that call. But as of now, calling BSDI when the “it” is very different feels… wrong.

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      • First of all, I’m mystified as to how what I wrote can somehow be understood as “BSDI.”

        Second, it may be the case that the only difference between stuff made up out of thin air and stuff that’s been generated by intelligence professionals is that it may be the case that some stuff made up out of thin air manages to fool intelligence professionals and thus accretes the veneer of their credibility. The global community was told a massive whopper about yellowcake uranium in Iraq, for instance. So an indicator of reliably, yes, but a weak indicator at this point.

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        • The global community was told a massive whopper about yellowcake uranium in Iraq, for instance. So an indicator of reliably, yes, but a weak indicator at this poin

          Um, IIRC, the only “intelligence community” that was so confident on Iraq was Wolfowitz’s internal shop, which grabbed raw intel and stovepiped up what Rumsfeld wanted to hear.

          The CIA was considerably less confident about Saddam’s WMD capacity.

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        • Perhaps I misread you. Did you mean it is your hope that this turns out to be crap — because this being crap is preferable for our nation’s sake than this being real — and, if it turns out to be crap, that means both sides are willing and able to fling crap at one another?

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  3. Second, while unproven, the allegations are being taken quite seriously. The President and President-elect do not get briefed on material that the intelligence community does not believe to be at least of some credibility.

    That’s the key point. A briefing took place. Evidence that one particular source of that intelligence is credible dos not justify concluding that a collation of oppo-research presumably based on that person’s work is verified. Ie., the briefing having occurred doesn’t entail that the allegations contained in the Buzzfeed-released dossier are true.

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    • Heh. I mentioned that in my initial comment about this: talk about a dystopia!. We’re either living in the dystopian hell where our incoming president is a Russian mole, or the dystopian victory of fake news uber alles.

      Or both.

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  4. In related news, again from Kevin Drum:

    1) It does appear that Comey cost Clinton the election.
    2) Comey is unwilling to discuss any investigation into Trump, because — to quote Comey yesterday: “I would never comment on investigations — whether we have one or not — in an open forum like this, so I really can’t answer one way or another.”

    I’m with Kevin Drum on this one. WTF?

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    • I was following fivethirtyeight.com pretty closely on a day to day basis, and Clinton took a 10% or so slide in their models the day before Comey’s letter (the second one, which ultimately was about the nothingburger in Weiner’s computer) was released.

      While I’m not going to argue that Comey’s letter had some impact, the last-week collapse of the seemingly-invincible Clinton candidacy had more than a single progenitor.

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      • If I were a partisan Republican, I’d completely indulge Drum’s pining for an FBI colored ribbon around the loss.

        What lesson does Drum take back to his team? Fire Comey? Dox Comey? Disband the FBI? Dox the FBI? Promote Loretta Lynch to honorary chair of Clinton campaign’s “50 state program”?

        Its Deus Ex Windmill. Let him tilt at windmills.

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        • Two elections in 20 years wherein a popular vote loser won the Presidency, both that involved another branch of government doing something really unprecedented.

          If nothing else, Comey’s actions were incredibly, incredibly undemocratic. The fact that we then got to see it demonstrated they were also one-sided was just icing on the cake.

          80,000 votes in three states changed an election.

          I don’t think it’s tilting at windmills to say “WTF was with that?” when the FBI director decides to throw his weight into the election even if you believe it had no effect. (Which is frankly difficult to swallow).

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        • What lessons do they take? One petty and one big picture:
          -The petty one? The institutional norm of not releasing baseless allegations around election time has been dispensed with in the GOP’s favor. Partisan Liberals in law enforcement or investigative arms of various governmental agencies are now free to respond accordingly.

          -The big picture one? Clinton got kneecapped and that means that a deep revision of party doctrine and policy positions is not necessary. It’d be like replacing your transmission after driving over a nail.

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          • And that’s the relevance of the exchange I’m having with , below. I don’t think that “Clinton got kneecapped” is a complete enough picture of what went wrong.

            (N.b. this does not mean Democrats need to adopt conservativeish policy planks to triangulate.)

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            • Well yes. The first caveat on any of this is that HRC is ultimately responsible for letting things get close enough where a rogue official could swing the election. That is granted entirely.

              Now, that being said, Comey appears to have broken both rules and norms by pulling this stunt. The given reason appears to have been some combination of A) that a bunch of highly pro-Trump partisans in his office were going to leak the info through right wing channels anyhow and B) he had promised an angry right wing congress that he’d tell them if anything new came up so he was trying to cover his ass. Neither A or B strike me as having any significant mitigating weight.
              Knowing, as we know now, that the info Comey reported on was entirely a nothingburger does that make us think his actions were correct? I submit they were improper and if we do not call them out as such then we can expect to get more stunts like that in the future.

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              • Especially when he was sitting on this Trump stuff, and then had the gall to defend it by claiming he didn’t comment on active investigations.

                That doesn’t even get into his BS July press conference, which ALSO massively broke from FBI norms.

                Let’s tally up all the motes and hope it’s not as big as the beam seems to be the strategy here.

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              • North,
                Comey had nearly half of the FBI threatening to resign if he didn’t look at Weiner’s laptop posthaste.

                Nevertheless, his actions were improper and he deserves a nice shiny slap on the wrist.

                Do you really think the FBI hasn’t killed more than one campaign this election?

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      • Did it? I mean these guys put a little more work into claiming that it wasn’t other factors than “what they remember from 538”. They could very well be wrong, of course.

        In any case, that still doesn’t cover the fact that Comey was really happy to talk about one ongoing investigation but not another.

        Nor the underlying problem that was actually have laws against doing what he did, for this exact reason. And so far, it seems to have been swept under the rug even AFTER we found out that his accusation was totally baseless — that he jumped into to “give word” of something that, once investigated, contained nothing.

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        • Shit, dude, I was being lazy. You want actual research? Here’s the 538 nowcast, which is the most relevant of their three models for this purpose.

          538’s model tracks all of the polls, and devalues them based on how old they are. So the most recent polls get weighted much more heavily. They integrate the polls as they are reported, which means that the delta on the aggregate the model reported was showing what voters thought in the most recent polls included.

          Clinton’s precipitous drop from about an 85% chance of success began on October 26. On that day, she had an 85.9% chance of winning, which is about where she’d been for three weeks or so, since the second debate. On their podcast that week, Harry Enten stated that the model pretty much “maxed out” at about this point and simply could not be reasonably expected to rise higher than that.

          As with most of the days immediately before and immediately after, October 27 saw about 1.2 metric shit tons of polls come in, which you can look up on their “updates” tab and clicking down for more updates until you get these dates. I can’t upload the excel spreadsheet to the ordinarytimes.com server, but I made a pdf of those reports should you want to look at it. The polling periods reported in the critical states are October 20-26. You can repeat the exercise if you like for the next several days, but as I’ll point out in two paragraphs, that may not be particularly relevant.

          The result of 538’s aggregation of polls taken from October 20-26, in its nowcast model, dropped Clinton from 85.9% to 81.4%. She would never again have such a high probability of winning, and her delta would not turn positive again until November 6.

          So something happened in or before October 20-26 — most likely a bunch of somethings happened — that the polls reported on October 27 were measuring, that showed a softening of support for Clinton.

          The Comey letter informing Congress that Clinton’s e-mails were potentially implicated in a “separate investigation,” concerning Anthony Weiner, was released on October 28, 2016. It would not be until October 31, 2016 that the first poll that was taken on or after October 28 would re reported (the Times-Picayune/Lucid poll, taken from October 28-October 30, showing Trump at +1, which 538 house-adjusted up to Trump #2).

          My point is not that the Comey letter had no effect. My point is that Clinton’s decline in support started before it Comey letter. Saying “Comey threw the election for Trump” is inaccurate because it’s incomplete. “Comey did what he could to throw the election for Trump” is fine — “Comey pushed things in Trump’s favor” is not something I’d take nearly as strong an issue with. But something else was going on: in all likelihood, a lot of something elses were going on.

          And now I think I need to get back to work.

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          • The article I linked talks about exactly that. Did you not read it? I thought you meant something they didn’t discuss.

            To be sure, the gap with Clinton was narrowing before Comey dropped his bombshell, but the pace also picked up significantly after that. For example, averaging across 14 battleground states, the race moved 1.1 points in Trump’s direction in the week following the third and final debate — but Trump gained an additional 2.4 points after October 28.

            And 538 mentions it as well:

            The effect of Comey’s late intervention into the election is also clear in the national polls. As neuroscientist Sam Wang showed, Clinton’s margin over Trump falls dramatically in national polls directly after the Comey letter and never recovers. At the time, statistician Nate Silver noted that the Comey letter coincided with “a swing of about 3 points against her” — a massive swing in a tight election. These public polls are supported by internal polling from both campaigns suggesting that Comey was a massive blow to Clinton at a pivotal moment in the election.

            You can say “the race was so tight that anything could have been ‘the reason'” — but it looks pretty solidly like the only reason the race was that tight was because of Comey.

            I realize “One guy put his thumb on the scale for reasons no one understands” is kind of hard to swallow, except we all watched it happen.

            That the guy goes on to admit that he had actual damaging information about the OTHER candidate he didn’t release, while making sure something he had no information about at all (no warrants even) was on 24/7 rotation for a week is just icing on the cake.

            Trump owes Comey more than he owes Putin, although I don’t think this was probably Comey’s intent. (it IS why DoJ has an actual policy for situations like this, which Comey ignored).

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            • So that was just a whole bunch of work I just did to agree with the article when it said “To be sure, the gap with Clinton was narrowing before Comey dropped his bombshell…” and I agree with “…the pace also picked up significantly after that.”

              Which I don’t think diminishes the notion that something else was going bad for Clinton other than and before Comey, but which I concede does demonstrate that Comey had an impact.

              So are you / we / consensus calling it a camel-back-breaking event? I’m only really fighting this because I think the emerging popular wisdom that Comey cost Clinton the election is too-reductive thinking.

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              • As I said, I thought you were talking about something other than what was in the article — since the article takes your point and then talks quite a bit about late deciders, internal polling, and reasons why that the pre-Comey tightening was not the same as the post-Comey jump..

                (Including 538 pointing out that Comey in July had been responsible for a 2 point dip for Clinton, even when clearing her).

                You can say “She didn’t campaign in those states” — except she did in some of them, and her poll collapse was universal. You could say she was unpopular, except her opponent was more so. You could state it was some other event, but what?

                Some tightening at the end of a race is normal and doesn’t need some explanatory event or trend, but this was highly unusual. And the bulk of the damage occurred after a highly unusual announcement and a large media feeding frenzy.

                It might be “something else” but what? I’m a little skeptical that “something changed, but not the big thing that led to weeks of speculation and was a constant news drumbeat against the candidate that then loss support” because THAT sounds like really hard to swallow.

                I think reluctance to finger Comey might have more to do with not wanting to think our electoral system is so fragile, or that one man could swing so much….over so little.

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              • There are two statements that sometimes get conflated in these discussions:

                1) Comey caused Clinton’s loss. Rephrased: If Comey had not done what he did, Clinton wouldn’t have lost. I don’t believe this 100%, but I also don’t think it’s crazy. The evidence of his effect is strong and the election was ridiculously close. My gut feeling is it’s a coin toss.

                2) Comey was the only cause of Clinton’s loss. This is clearly not true. It takes a perfect storm of stuff for Trump to get close enough to win that Comey could have pushed it over the line. Remove any of those causal factors and you get President Clinton.

                A lot of people push back against (1) by providing evidence that (2) is false, and I feel like that’s what you mean by “too reductive” in this context. It’s not really “reductive” to say that any element in the perfect storm was a necessary condition, but it leaves a bit out not to mention that it was a necessary but insufficient condition on its own.

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                • I think the Vox article (and the arguments in it) boiled down to “Comey didn’t swing a handful of votes and turned a squeaker one way instead of the other, he looked to have swung the election 2 or 3 points”.

                  And as noted by North, Comey was wrong to do what he did (both in October and in July — and by wrong I mean in violation of long-standing DOJ and FBI policies put into place to prevent exactly this stuff) regardless of the outcome.

                  So the numbers seem to be coming down that his violation of DoJ policy made a MASSIVE impact, which in a sane world would be a cue for both parties and every citizen to hammer that into the ground so no one in his position ever again decides to play silly buggers with the elections.

                  Instead, we get to listen to him talk about how of COURSE he wouldn’t talk about any investigations into Trump prior to the election. Why that would violate DoJ and FBI policy.

                  As North says, the upshot here? We’re gonna get ants. LOTS of ants.

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                  • Or, to put it more simply, once people know that some lucky Supreme Court Justices and directors of the FBI get votes that matter a lot more than the rest of us, people will change their behavior in response. Sort of like when you let people know that some (Black, Democratic) Presidents get to nominate fewer Supreme Court justices than others.

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                  • morat20,
                    Say Hello to President Walker, ladies and fucking gentlemen.
                    Seriously, Do I really, really need to spell it out?

                    I do have some nice news articles on our last mayor around here, and on exactly how quickly he decided to retire after the FBI started investigating.

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  5. If we want to get back to a booming 90s economy, we need to appoint a special prosecutor with the charter to investigate everything every done by Trump (or his family, or his employees, or his friends, or anyone who’s ever watched The Apprentice.)

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