Dec 3, 2021

Femsplainers (+ Frum) On Culture Wars, Covid, Russiagate

Three old friends join me in the studio.

Andrew Sullivan
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Unafraid conversations about anything

I’ve been meaning to invite Christina Sommers and Danielle Crittenden on the pod since they first had me on theirs, Femsplainers, a few years ago. This week we talked about men and women, trans and cis, gay and straight, and they drank rosé and I smoked half a joint, as we did on their pod.

For two clips of our conversation — on whether more women staying home during Covid was a good thing, and on how gender nonconformity is often a source of strength — head over to our YouTube page. You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app,” which will connect you to the Dishcast feed.

At the last minute, we re-invited to the pod Danielle’s husband, David Frum, because we both wanted to hash out our differences over the Trump-Russia media coverage. (We first debated the issue ten months ago, and my column last week was in response to his latest in the Atlantic.) I think we may have made some progress in finessing where we differ, and why. But you be the judge. Things got a bit heated here:

Meanwhile, readers continue to hash out the intricacies of Russiagate in a series of dissents that continue from our main page. First up:

David Frum has a really good summary of the evidentiary record, excluding the Steele Dossier, showing that cooperation with Russia did occur. In your response, you basically agree that he’s right about everything and just try to define the media narrative as something greater than that and say it hasn’t been proven. It would take another thousand words to explain all the ways in which this doesn’t work. (It can’t be collusion because he already liked Russia?? Really?!! Sanctions imposed under duress and then deliberately undermined prove he’s not guilty? Huh?!!)

From my point of view, you’re engaged in a hair-splitting exercise in denial. I guarantee that Rachel Maddow and others in the liberal media are not backing down from the idea that Trump and Russia may have colluded, cooperated, or coordinated (all three are bad), because they continue to see evidence that it’s true, regardless of the dossier — which has really been more of a distraction.

Another reader begins by quoting me:

“But this was not what the MSM tried to sell us from the get-go. What they and the Democrats argued — with endless, breathless, high-drama reporting — was that there was some kind of plot between Trump and Russia to rig the election and it had succeeded. Investigating this was hugely important because it could expose near-treason and instantly remove Trump from power via impeachment. This was the dream to cope with the nightmare.”

Andrew, read this NYT article: it seems that Don Jr. actually *did* meet with a Russian attorney, who promised documents that would embarrass Clinton, and the Russian government *did* hack into the Clinton campaign’s emails and did release those emails, and Trump himself asked the Russians (on national TV) to release more emails. And of course, Trump actually won the election, and the Russian intelligence service’s email dump may well have pushed Trump over the finish line, so it’s hard to argue that the Russian campaign wasn’t a success. So I’m trying to figure out exactly what the MSM got wrong here.

The only thing I can think of is that you think that the MSM actually accused the Trump campaign of initiating the hack of the Clinton campaign emails. But I can’t find any evidence that they did say that. In the article above, for example, the Times specifically says: “The precise nature of the promised damaging information about Mrs. Clinton is unclear, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was related to Russian-government computer hacking that led to the release of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails.”

In reality, of course, the Trump campaign contributed nothing to the Russian hacking beyond making it clear that should Trump win the election, there would be no retribution for influencing our election — which could be the campaign’s biggest contribution to the Russian hacking.

So, if you’re going to accuse the MSM of actually going further, please define what further actually means, and then, please, come up with a link to at least *one* article from CNN, NYT or the Washington Post to such an article. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable ask.

Another reader raises more question:

David Frum’s piece begins by setting a low bar, by his own admission, listing only those matters acknowledged by everyone. It leaves out other matters that are equally interesting, and it makes it fair to turn your question back around to you. If Trump really wasn’t guilty of outright treason or near-treason in his dealings with Russia, then:

  • Why was he desperate to fire Mueller?

  • Why did he meet privately with Putin on one occasion, barring his own translator, and on another, entertain the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in the Oval Office, with few or no witnesses?

  • Why did he make a craven public spectacle of himself standing next to the president of a hostile foreign power, raising the issue of election interference, and saying he believed him?

  • Why did he briefly consider turning the former US ambassador to Russia over to the Russians for questioning?

Do you not find these matters worth considering, even though they weren’t cited by Frum? No less a Trump minion than Steve Bannon called the Trump tower meeting “treasonous” and commented further that “There’s no way [Don Jr. and his associates] didn’t take [the Russian visitor] up to the 26th floor to meet Dad.”

In the end, you seem to take refuge in the overused dodge, “But you see, Trump is too dumb to be a conspirator, so it’s really OK, and there’s nothing to see here.”

1. He wanted to fire Mueller because he cannot bear any rival authority, especially one with the power to subpoena. Show me an investigation Trump has not tried to obstruct. 2. No idea but this is again asking Trump to prove a negative. 3. Because he genuinely admires Putin more than the CIA. 4. Don’t know. But I’m not sure considering something and then not doing it is some kind of gotcha.

Another reader looks to Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chair:

In your response to Frum, I’m mostly in agreement with you, but one line gave me a pause: “Manafort’s delivery of polling data to Moscow was deeply shifty.”

I highly recommend you check out Aaron Maté’s deep dive on this particular point over at Real Clear Investigations. Mueller did not conclude that Kilimnik was a Russian agent, nor did he charge Manafort with sharing polling data. The Senate Intelligence Committee and Biden’s Treasury Department have claimed that — but without any public evidence to show for it. They didn’t even interview Kilimnik, who is a Ukrainian-American, a longtime associate of Manafort, and a former U.S. State Department asset. According to him and Rick Gates, the polling data was old, top-line, and mostly available to the public. This is a far cry from the collusion we were promised at the outset of the Mueller investigation, and it’s the only remaining “smoking gun” that the press still clings to.

I understand why Frum would never mention these facts, but they’re the most important part of this whole affair, in my humble opinion. The Steele Dossier was used by the FBI to illegally spy on the Trump campaign and later administration, while some of the biggest names in U.S. intelligence and law enforcement were pushing the “Trump is a Russian agent” conspiracy theory: Brennan, Clapper, and to a lesser extent Comey and Hayden. It was the systematic delegitimization of the 2016 election by everyone who hated Trump for personal and policy reasons.

Frum aims directly at so-called anti-anti-Trump journalists, because these folks happen to be the most civil libertarian-minded people I know on the Left. And they were right about this whole investigation, just by being skeptical from the beginning.

Another reader argues that perception is reality — a reality that Trump himself created:

While some of us did indeed wait for, and hope for, a “smoking gun” that would prove a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Putin’s government, I think you’re assuming a connection that the MSM (to use an impossibly vague generalization) didn’t explicitly make. We know Trump openly welcomed Russian interference in the 2016 election on his behalf. Mueller confirmed more than a hundred unexplained meetings between the Trump campaign and Russian actors, some of them known spies. And as he infamously demonstrated in Helsinki in 2018, Trump participated in covering up his connections to Russia during the campaign and well after the election.

But was that enough to determine the outcome of the election? No one can determinatively say, and I seriously doubt it, but that’s really beside the point. Putin didn’t make Trump an illegitimate president. Trump did that himself by publicly behaving like we’d expect a Russian asset to behave, and intentionally creating the appearance that he was up to something behind the scenes — like his seizing of his interpreter’s notes after his first private meeting with Putin.

Was his obsequious flattery of Putin and lying about his ties to Russia motivated by “kompromat”? Irrelevant. His behavior was his behavior. Why did he side with Putin over the findings of American intelligence? Because he had secret business dealings with Russia? (He did.) Or because he wanted to provoke and outrage “the libs”?

It really doesn’t matter. We aren’t talking (at this point) about criminal “reasonable doubt” standards in a court of law. We’re looking at politics in the court of public opinion. And in politics, the appearance of impropriety is what matters. Trump openly displayed his contempt for the American system of self-government and the rule of law, and with that lawless disregard for our constitutional checks and balances alone he forfeited legitimacy in the eyes of millions, regardless of how they voted in 2016. He built his political career on the tabloid scandal of “birtherism,” then complained when political opponents painted him with the same brush.

As for the Steele Dossier, you’ll recall that it wasn’t made known to the public until after Buzzfeed leaked the whole thing in January 2017 — well after the election. Not only was nothing in it ever used by the Clinton campaign as “oppo research” (a practice Trump himself defended in regard to the Trump Tower “dirt on Hillary” meeting), but it was never used in any of the charges brought against Trump campaign officials.

I think you’re right about the embarrassment and defensive motivations of many in the press after Trump won. That was clearly on display. But it doesn’t explain Trump’s behavior — like his lifting of sanctions on Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in 2019. Trump himself rarely offered any reasons for his actions — they always came down to “I did it because I can,” even when he couldn’t. He left it up to the rest of us to fill in the gaps he stubbornly refused to account for himself.

It’s worth reiterating here that Trump’s behavior in all this, as in everything, was objectively appalling. My point is simply that that just doesn’t mean he’s guilty the way so many made him out to be.

Another reader frowns at Mueller:

Your condemnation of MSM is inconsistent with your accurate view of Trump. As a former federal prosecutor, it is hardly anomalous, let alone improper, to believe that Trump’s conflicts, pathological lying, motive, and shady past operated to render him particularly susceptible to Russian kompromat. It is not improper to believe that his repeated efforts to obstruct justice, including efforts to have witnesses lie, confirmed the notion that he had colluded with Russian assistance in the election. 

The failure to find a smoking gun confirming a federal conspiracy beyond any doubt does not mean it (or collusion, for which there is political consequence but no statutory prohibition) did not happen, or that those who claimed it had were craven opponents blinded by their own prejudice. 

Alone among suspects, Trump was treated with unique deference by Robert Mueller. Mueller did not force him to testify (where, Trump’s lawyers realized, he would have either lied or taken the fifth); he applied a very narrow view of conspiracy law that ignored or at the very least downplayed the enormous circumstantial evidence you yourself cite; and he used the DOJ policy against prosecuting sitting presidents as the basis for refusing to conclude, as all the evidence proved, that Trump had obstructed justice. 

Those in the MSM who were, as you put it, “breathless” in expecting Trump’s imminent downfall no doubt failed to consider the possibility that Mueller’s narrow approach would provide Trump a political escape hatch. But they cannot be condemned for “overkill” given the wealth of evidence that did exist.

Lastly, on a different subject, a somber note from a reader:

I hope you and yours are enjoying a blessed Thanksgiving. In case you hadn’t already heard, Maj. Ian Fishback just had an untimely death. It was your coverage and praise of his moral courage back in the blog days that brought him to my attention, and the same is likely true for many others. I hadn’t heard news of him in years; didn’t know that he went on to pursue postgraduate studies; and certainly didn’t know of his mental health struggles. Our society, our country, and certainly the Veterans Administration owe heroes like Maj. Fishback MUCH better than he received. May we all do better, and may his memory be an inspiration.

That’s a gut-punch. We so easily forget the trauma and psychological impact of serving in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially for a man like Fishback who also had to witness his peers violate the Geneva Conventions. If you have a moment, it’s worth re-reading the letter he once wrote to John McCain. It’s the letter of an American hero, a good and decent and courageous man, who came to die in an adult foster-care facility, after his demons overcame him. May he rest in peace.