Thursday, March 09, 2017

A theory of Trump's wiretap tweets

The MSM has been busily parsing Donald Trump's latest unfounded (and some might say unhinged) allegations about Barack Obama spying on him during the election.  The analysis seems to shift between bewilderment and a resigned there-he-goes-again: still more buffoonery from the buffoon-in-chief.  What did you expect?
Of course, a more economical explanation is also available: It could be that the president of the United States was making bizarre counterfactual assertions based on whatever half-baked conspiracy theories he just read on right-wing media.
(We interrupt this missive to bring you an important aside: it's worth watching the video clip linked above of Ronald Reagan delivering his famous, "There you go again" line.  The clip includes the context in which that line was delivered, which no one seems to remember.  It's particular noteworthy in the light of what has happened in the subsequent 37 years, and indeed what is happening today.  We now return to our regularly scheduled blog post.)

But what if, as Scott Adams has pointed out 1000 times, Trump is not a buffoon?  What if there is method to this apparent madness?  To what end could all this chaos possibly be in service of?

Well, here's a theory.

First, let us catalog what I think are some relevant facts:

1.  On December 29 of last year, then-still-President Obama, in a standard response to reports of Russia attempting (perhaps successfully) to influence the U.S. election through computer hacking, expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S.  The next day, Vladimir Putin, to everyone's surprise, announced that he would not invoke the standard retaliatory response to Obama's response to Russia's hacking, a departure from the script that left everyone at the time scratching their heads.

2.  Not even two months in, one Trump administration official has already resigned and another is under a dark cloud of suspicion for having attempted to conceal the fact that they met with Russian officials during the campaign.

3.  Donald Trump really really really doesn't want anyone to see his tax returns.

Next we have to ask just how un-bufoonish do we want to believe that Trump is.  I see three possible answers to this.  One possible answer is that he is a true Master of the Game, on a par with Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un.  (Say what you will about North Korea, the fact that the regime has not fallen and Kim's power faces no serious challenges -- when by all rights both of these things should have happened long ago -- is testimony to his political skill.)  But this is not consistent with the evidence.  There are a lot of things happening that Trump is apparently unhappy about.  He does not give the appearance of a man who is entirely in control of the situation.

So that leaves two other possibilities: one is that Trump is better than Putin, and all the chaos and confusion is all part of the plan.  This again is inconsistent with the evidence.  Yes, Trump is the President of the United States of America, which is no mean feat.  But he got there on the slimmest of margins, losing the popular vote, and running against the second most unpopular candidate in the history of presidential politics (he himself being the first).  If he were Putin's master I would expect him to do better.

His prior history also doesn't square with the master-of-masters theory.  Yes, he's rich, but he's a piker compared to Putin.  Even Trump's own inflated estimates put his net worth around only a few percent of Putin's.  Donald Trump seems to be particularly skilled at only one thing: screwing people over and getting away with it.

The second possibility, the much more likely one, is that Trump is out of his league.  He was able to navigate the waters of real estate development, reality TV, and New York City politics, but the presidency is a whole new ballgame, one for which he is utterly unprepared.  In particular, I don't think he reckoned on the power of the Deep State, and now he is scrambling to figure out how to deal with it.

Whether or not there really is a deep state in the U.S. is not the point.  My theory is simply that Trump did in fact make a deal with the Russians.  He made this deal because he has been doing business with Russia for years.  He probably thought (maybe even still thinks) that there is nothing at all wrong with it.  He may even be right about that.  But when he extended that deal-making as a private citizen to deal-making as president-elect but not as president, he crossed a very serious line.  He probably didn't realize it at the time, but he almost certainly does now.

Somewhere in the deep labyrinth of the intelligence agencies (it is surely that even if it is not a deep state) I'm pretty sure there is a Nixonian smoking gun, a recording of Trump that proves that he knew about and authorized a deal with the Russians on or around December 29.  Someone knows.  And Trump knows that they know.

So why hasn't this evidence been released?  Well, obviously because whoever has it (let's call him/her/them Deep Sam as a gender-neutral homage to both Mark Felt and the Deep State) thinks that it is more advantageous to them or to the nation to keep it secret for now.  Maybe Deep Sam is a patriot who believes that releasing the smoking gun would be bad for the country.  After all, if we get rid of President Trump we just end up with President Pence, who is vastly worse than Trump, in no small measure because Pence is actually a competent politician.  Trump's incompetence, and the resulting chaos and delays, somewhat limit the damage that he and the Republicans will be able to do.  (It is a sad, sad commentary on the state of our nation that the fact that our president is incompetent is actually a feature and not a bug.)  It is also possible that Deep Sam is an opportunist who wants to hang on for as long as possible to the considerable power provided by having dirt on the POTUS.

A more difficult question to answer is why Putin pulled back on retaliation when that provides such clear evidence that a deal was struck before the inauguration.  That seems like a rookie mistake, the sort of blunder Trump would make but not Putin.  I must confess I don't have a good answer for this.  Maybe Putin himself didn't realize that striking a deal with Trump before the inauguration would be viewed unfavorably in the U.S.  Maybe he was just having a bad day.  I don't know.  But it's clear that something unusual happened that day.  So it's not completely unreasonable to suspect that two unusual things happened.

This theory is the only one I can think of that accounts for Trump's publicly accusing Obama of wiretapping him but does not require Trump to just be a total loon.  Think about it: someone breaks the news to Trump that 1) dealing with the Russians before the inauguration was a serious no-no and 2) someone (Deep Sam) has proof that he did it.  Trump is pwned, so he plays the only move he has left: blame Obama.

The reason Trump accused Obama of wiretapping him is because Trump thinks it's true.  How else could anyone have that smoking gun?  It must have been Obama.  He even has evidence this time, God damn it!  But he can't reveal that evidence because the evidence is the smoking gun, and revealing that would be his own undoing.

I have no idea if this theory is correct, but it does seem to be a pretty good fit to the available facts.  Also, it's a hell of a lot of fun to contemplate.


Don Geddis said...

I think your comparison of Trump to Putin is unfair to Trump. Sure, Putin has more control of his country, and Putin is richer. But the US has far more robust checks and balances than Russia, so the challenge is far harder. And, more important, Putin has had something like 20 years to grow into the power and wealth that he currently possesses, whereas Trump has been in charge of the US more like 20 days. Give him time. The important point (I would claim), is whether Trump views a Putin-like state as an aspirational goal, and is taking slow steps in the direction of dictatorship, every chance he can get.

I also want to suggest another interpretation to the wiretapping. Trump's primary skill is controlling the narrative. Being a showman, a salesman, a marketer. He's been frustrated by his lack of absolute control over the MSM. He has a thin skin, and when unflattering stories dominate the news cycle, he has a need to regain control of the primary national narrative, and have it be about himself, in some vaguely positive light.

His address to Congress was one of the very highest points of his entire last year. He wanted to bask in the glow of even mainstream approval. Instead, Sessions contacts with Russia quickly took over the news cycle, and Trump was furious. But he's a smart enough salesman to know that just whining about how unfair the media is, won't change the story. You have to feed the beast some new shiny toy.

I don't think Trump believes that Obama really wiretapped him. But more importantly, I don't think he cares. Just like he doesn't really "care" about government policy either. Everything, instead, is interpreted through the lens of power, and control, and what is good (in his mind) for his brand. We have dozens of proven examples, of Trump promoting theories that even he surely knows are false, and never caring or apologizing for them. Obama birther, Ted Cruz's father and Oswald, inauguration crowds, millions of illegal immigrant votes, highest murder rate in 47 years, etc. In the context of his clear and proven reputation, surely there's little point in trying to figure out what "really" caused Trump to claim wiretapping. There is rarely much depth to Trump beyond the surface appearance. It's all surface.

P.S. "Scott" Adams (Dilbert), not Doug (Hitchhiker).

Tony said...

Obama was on his way out - why should Putin pour gasoline into the fire, at this very moment? What good would an escalation do? (Plus, I remember that after contacts from NASA to Russian Space Companies - except for ISS - were forbidden, Russia kept flying American Astronauts to the ISS on Russian Soyuzs. Was that also a deal between Putin and Trump?). For Putin, it is much better be nice, and create an atmosphere that is conductive to friendly relations between these two nations.

BTW: Last time I checked, the USA are not at war with Russia. Contacts with Russian state officials are not forbidden (though not telling the truth about it is stupid). I remember distinctly several US presidential elections, where the German government reached out to contact both candidates.

I think the American "Left" has gone mad, trying to blame Russia for what is wrong in their country, when they ignore their own role in all of it.

Ron said...


So your theory is that Trump just made the wiretap story up out of whole cloth in order to draw the spotlight back on himself? I guess that's possible, but it hardly seems like "controlling the narrative." People are already starting to ask the natural question: if it's true, was there a warrant? What was the probable cause?

> "Scott" Adams (Dilbert), not Doug

Thanks. Fixed.


> Obama was on his way out - why should Putin pour gasoline into the fire, at this very moment? What good would an escalation do?

What good do these things ever do? Countries spy on each other and meddle in each others affairs. They get caught. They expel each other's diplomats for a while. Then they kiss and make up. It's how the game is played. It beats going to war.

> Contacts with Russian state officials are not forbidden

Indeed not. But trying to undermine the foreign policy of the sitting president of the U.S. is.

> (though not telling the truth about it is stupid)

Indeed. And lying about it *repeatedly* and *under oath* is even more stupid. It naturally makes people wonder what it is you are trying to hide.

> I think the American "Left" has gone mad, trying to blame Russia for what is wrong in their country, when they ignore their own role in all of it.

I don't hear anyone on the American left blaming Russia for the problems in the U.S. Can you give me an example?

Don Geddis said...

Well, I wouldn't necessarily say "whole cloth". Isn't there usually a tiny grain of truth to these things?

After all, Obama was born in Hawaii, which is very far from most of the US. And his father was from Kenya. And he did spend his childhood growing up in Indonesia. Which is a Muslim-majority country. So the Obama "birther" nonsense isn't really made up "out of whole cloth" either. It's "just" an extreme exaggeration.

In Trump's case, he liked Michael Flynn. And Flynn was forced to resign, because of intelligence leaks to the mainstream media. Trump was pissed that he lost Flynn, was pissed that US intelligence leaked, and was pissed that he was forced out because of Trump's media enemies. And how was it that US intelligence knew Flynn talked to the Russians? Surely someone was snooping on something there. Probably on the Russians directly, but you never know; maybe someone was tracking Flynn at the time. It seems not such a giant leap to similarly "exaggerate" this situation, and accuse Obama of wiretapping Trump directly. Even without any additional evidence. It's the kind of thing Trump does all the time.

You're trying to make a deeper story out it. But we already know that Trump is willing to tell straight lies. Yes, I guess I think this was nothing more than taking a story of "Trump's guy is a traitor for the Russians", and trying to turn it into "Obama was evil and should be prosecuted for a felony". Worrying about a possible "warrant" only concerns a tiny percentage of the citizens. Trump ignores the elites. He's after controlling the top-level emotional narrative.

Ron said...

> Isn't there usually a tiny grain of truth to these things?

Well, yeah, that was kind of my whole point: what if there is more than just a "grain" of truth in that tweet?

> We already know that Trump is willing to tell straight lies.

You're kind of contradicting yourself here. Didn't you just say that his lies usually have a grain of truth?

Yes, Trump is willing to tell straight lies, but his lies are usually a *response* to something. He doesn't often just shoot of a lie for no apparent reason. But this one just seemed totally out of left field. Obama is gone, what's the point of vilifying him now? It's also very *specific* and very *serious* (he's either admitting that there was probably cause for him to be wiretapped, or he's accusing Obama of committing a felony), which is also uncharacteristic. Most Trumpian lies are either vague or trivial (often both). So to me it doesn't quite compute as a lie.

But what if it's not a lie? What if Trump really did "just learn" something that led him to believe that he was wiretapped? What could lead him to believe that? Well, one possibility is that someone played him a damaging recording that he thinks could not have been obtained any other way. And the most likely candidate for what could be on such a recording is Trump promising the Russians that he'll lift sanctions on them in exchange for their help in influencing the election.