By Daniel Lazare, Consortium News, Feb 17, 2017
Democrats and liberals are so angry about President Trump that they are turning to McCarthyistic tactics without regard to basic fairness or the need to avoid a costly and dangerous New Cold War.
America is a strange place and the blow-up over Mike Flynn’s conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is making it even stranger. Liberals are sounding like conservatives, and conservatives like liberals.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, made perfect sense when he remarked on CNN concerning the intelligence leaks that are now turning into a flood: “We’ve got to have some facts to work with here. And what troubles me is that … there are people within the intelligence community that disagree with President Trump [and] that don’t want to see his administration succeed. … General Flynn has been subject to a political assassination here regardless of what he did or didn’t say to President Trump or Vice President Pence.”
Quite right. Breitbart News’ Joel B. Pollak sounded similarly sensible in asking “whether our nation’s intelligence services were involved in what amounts to political espionage against the newly-elected government.” So did right-wing talk-show host Michael Savage in describing “the demonization of Putin, Russia, and Flynn” on the part of “neocons, the intel community, and Democrats who want constant antagonism with Russia.”
Considering the craziness we usually get from such sources, it was all disconcertingly … sane. On the liberal side, however, the hysteria has been non-stop. In full prosecutorial mode, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza demanded to know:
“Did Trump instruct Flynn to discuss a potential easing of sanctions with Russia? Did Flynn update Trump on his calls with the Russian Ambassador? Did Trump know that Flynn lied to Pence about those contacts? What did the White House counsel do with the information that he received from [Acting Attorney General Sally] Yates about Flynn being vulnerable to blackmail?”
At The Nation, Joan Walsh was thrilled to hear the media asking “the old Watergate question about what the president knew and when.”
“We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again,” declared Bill Moyers and Michael Winship at Alternet: “there MUST be an investigation by an independent, bipartisan commission of Russia’s ties to Donald Trump and his associates and that nation’s interference in our elections.”
At The Intercept, the perennially self-righteous Glenn Greenwald said intelligence agents are “wholly justified” in leaking inside information because “[a]ny leak that results in the exposure of high-level wrongdoing – as this one did – should be praised, not scorned and punished.”
Over the top
Finally, there was The New York Times, which, in Thursday’s lead editorial, compared the Flynn contretemps to Watergate and Iran-Contra, expressed “shock and incredulity that members of Mr. Trump’s campaign and inner circle were in repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials,” and called for a congressional investigation into whether the White House has been taken over by Moscow:
“Coming on top of credible information from America’s intelligence agencies that Russia tried to destabilize and influence the 2016 presidential campaign, these latest revelations are more than sufficient reason for Congress to investigate what Moscow has been up to and whether people at the highest levels of the United States government have aided and abetted the interests of a nation that has tried to thwart American foreign policy since the Cold War.”
High-level wrongdoing! Colluding with the enemy! Shock and incredulity! It’s enough to make a concerned citizen reach for the nearest bottle of 151-proof rum. But it’s all nonsense. Liberals are working themselves into a crisis mode on the basis of zero evidence.
Let’s begin with what The Nation’s Joan Walsh regards as the key issue: what do we know and when did we know it?
Well, we know that on Thursday, Dec. 29, Barack Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives for allegedly interfering with the presidential election and imposed sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence services. We also know that Flynn had called the Russian ambassador a day earlier to discuss sanctions in general and that although he “never made explicit promises of sanctions relief,” according to unnamed government officials cited by the Times, he “appeared to leave the impression it would be possible.”
In Times-speak, “appeared to leave the impression” means that the paper is unable to pin down anything that Flynn did that was specifically wrong, but still believes that the conversation was somehow unseemly.
According to The Washington Post, the key phone call came after Obama’s Dec. 29 decision to expel the Russian diplomats when Kislyak reached Flynn by phone while the national security advisor-designate and his wife were vacationing at a beachside resort in the Dominican Republic. “As a veteran intelligence officer,” The Post said, “…Flynn must have known that a call with a Russian official in Washington would be intercepted by the U.S. government, pored over by FBI analysts and possibly even shared with the White House.”
In any event, whatever he told Kislyak must have been reassuring since Vladimir Putin announced later that day that he would not engage in a tit-for-tat retaliation by expelling U.S. diplomats.
Irritated by such maturity, the American “state security organs,” as the KGB and other Soviet intelligence services were once called, pounced. Having intercepted the Russian ambassador’s phone call, the FBI relayed the contents to Obama’s Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who authorized it to interrogate Flynn about the conversation. Flynn may have lied or not given a complete account or forgotten some of the details about what he and Kislyak discussed. He also may have given a similarly incomplete account to Vice President Mike Pence, which apparently upset Pence and led to Flynn being tossed overboard.
But if Trump and his team thought that would satisfy the sharks, they were wrong. The press went into a feeding frenzy. But the substance of the complaint against Flynn adds up to very little.
As Obama administration holdovers in the Justice Department searched for a legal justification with which to accuse Flynn of wrongdoing, the only thing they could come up with was the Logan Act of 1799 forbidding private citizens from negotiating with a foreign government that is in dispute with the United States. Adopted during the presidency of John Adams, the law was prompted by Dr. George Logan’s unauthorized negotiations with France, contacts that were praised by the Jeffersonians but anathema to the Federalists.
But invoking the Logan Act in any instance is a stretch, much less this one. It has never been used to prosecute anyone; it has never been tested in a court of law; and its constitutionality couldn’t be more questionable. Moreover, if the law is dubious when used to threaten a private citizen engaged in unauthorized diplomacy, then using it to go after a designated official of an incoming presidential administration that has been duly elected is many times more so.
As journalist Robert Parry points out, the Logan Act has mainly been “exploited in a McCarthyistic fashion to bait or discredit peace advocates” such as Jesse Jackson for visiting Cuba or House Speaker Jim Wright for trying to end the Contra war in Nicaragua. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Trump Caves on Flynn’s Resignation.”]
Of course, the Obama holdovers at Justice also said that Flynn might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. But if Flynn assumed that the U.S. intelligence was listening in, then the Russians probably did also, which means that both sides knew that there was no secret dirt to be used against him.
In other words, there’s no there there. Yet anti-Trump liberals are trying to convince the public that it’s all “worse than Watergate.”
This is not to make Flynn into a martyr of some sort. To the contrary, the man is every bit as nutty as critics say. The Field of Fight: How to Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, the book he co-wrote last year with neocon “intellectual” Michael Ledeen, is a paranoid fantasy about Muslim extremists ganging up with North Korea, Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela to bring down the United States and Israel.
Flynn’s appearance at a Feb. 7 White House press briefing in which he announced that “we are officially putting Iran on notice” over a missile test – and then stalked off without taking a single question – was so bizarre as to be positively Strangelovian.
But whether Flynn is a criminal is another matter. As Ronn Blitzer observed in a smart article at Lawnewz.com: “Between the details of the communications being unclear and the complete lack of historical guidance for prosecutors to work off of, chances are slim that he’ll face any legal repercussions.”
Lying to the FBI is another matter, of course. But grilling someone about whether he violated a moldy old law that should have been repealed centuries ago is the equivalent of giving someone the third degree over whether he washed his hands after using a public restroom. It raises questions about civil liberties and prosecutorial abuse that used to concern liberals – before, that is, they went bonkers over Russia.
Moreover, taking a call from the Russian ambassador is not only legal but, with the inauguration only three weeks away, precisely what one would expect a newly designated national security advisor to do. If the call indeed happened while Flynn was on vacation – and hence without the usual staff support – it’s not that surprising that he might not have had total recall of what was discussed. For FBI agents to question him weeks later and test his memory against their transcript of the conversation seems closer to entrapment than a fair-minded inquiry.
The whole area is a gray zone regarding what is and isn’t proper for a candidate or an incoming administration to do. Eight years earlier, Barack Obama reached out to foreign leaders to discuss policy changes before he was even elected.
In July 2008, candidate Obama visited Paris to confer with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy about Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan and NATO. In late November – after the election, that is, but before the oath of office – he telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss how his country might achieve greater stability.
Yet as Robert Charles notes at the conservative Townhall.com website, no one thought to mention the Logan Act or accuse Obama of overstepping his bounds by engaging in private diplomacy.
As to whether it was Trump who instructed Flynn to talk to the Russian ambassador – what Politico calls “the key question” and what Times columnist Gail Collins says would be “super-illegal” if true – that is also standard operating procedure.
Poor Donald Trump is getting it from both sides, from those who claim that he was unprepared for his new responsibilities (which he was) and from those who claim that he was too “pro-active” in reaching out to key international players before taking office.
The Crime of Peace
As to Glenn Greenwald’s charge that what Flynn did was not only illegal but wrong, all one can say is: what on earth is so terrible about trying to reduce U.S.-Russian tensions? Of all the things that Trump said on the campaign trail, one of the few that was not completely stupid was his call for better relations with Moscow.
After all, Obama had gotten himself into a serious pickle by the end of his administration in the “intermarium” between the Baltic and the Black Sea. This is where Obama found himself beholden to dangerous nationalist provocateurs from Estonia to Ukraine, where a major NATO arms build-up was making observers increasingly nervous and where serious fighting is now underway. But while one would think that liberals would approve of attempts to defuse a dangerous confrontation, Flynn is under assault for merely giving it a try.
(And what about Greenwald’s usual concern about intrusive electronic surveillance? Isn’t the Flynn case a classic example of law-enforcement agencies using powers to entrap an individual into a possible criminal violation by seeing if his recollection diverges from the official transcript of a wire-tapped conversation?)
Finally there is the New York Times editorial, a farrago of half-truths and unsubstantiated assertions. For instance:
–No matter how many times the “paper of record” insists that “Russia tried to destabilize and influence the 2016 presidential campaign,” it should realize that saying something doesn’t make it so. In fact, the Director of National Intelligence’s Jan. 6 report on the alleged hacking was so skimpy that even the Times conceded that it “contained no information about how the agencies had collected their data or had come to their conclusions” and was therefore “bound to be attacked by skeptics.”
–The charge of “repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials” is similarly evidence-free. The Times made the charge in a front-page exposé on Tuesday that was heavy on innuendo but short on facts. It said that Trump associates had “repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials” without saying what those contacts were or whether the individuals in question were even aware of whom they were talking to. It added, moreover, that there was “no evidence of … cooperation” with Russian intelligence and that it was “unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself.” There’s no there there as well.
–As for aiding and abetting “a nation that has tried to thwart American foreign policy since the Cold War,” all one can say is that the Times is engaging in classic McCarthyism by crying treason with zero data to back it up.
Opportunism and confusion
So, what’s going on? The simple answer is that Democrats are seizing on Russia because it’s an easy target in a capital city where war fever is already rising precipitously. Little thought seems to have been given to where this hysteria might lead. What if Dems get their way by forcing the administration to adopt a tougher policy on Russia? What if something horrendous occurs as a consequence such as a real live shooting exchange between U.S. and Russian troops? Will that make Democrats happy? Is that really what they want?
The truth is that America is in disarray not only politically but ideologically. Once Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race last summer, voters were faced with a choice between two right-of-center candidates, one (Hillary Clinton) seemingly bent on a pro-war policy regardless of the consequences and another (Donald Trump) who uttered isolationist inanities but nonetheless seemed to sense that a course change was in order with regard to Russia, Syria, and perhaps one or two other hot spots.
Since the election, both parties have responded by going even farther to the right, Trump by surrounding himself with billionaires and ultra-right fanatics and the Democrats by trying to out-hawk the GOP.
Sanity is in such short supply that the voices of reason now belong to Republicans like Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who told the Washington Post, “The big problem I see here is that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded,” or House Speaker Paul Ryan who says that reaching out to the Russian ambassador was “entirely appropriate.”
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, seems oddly rational in indicating that he will block legislation seeking to prevent Trump from rolling back anti-Russian sanctions.
All in all, it’s the worst Democratic performance since the Washington Post complained in 1901 that Teddy Roosevelt had “fanned the flames of negro aspiration” by inviting Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. What’s the point of an opposition when it’s even more irresponsible than the party in power?
As Phil Ochs sang about unprincipled liberals back in the 1960s:
Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.
Daniel Lazare is the author of ‘The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of American Democracy’ (Oct 2001); ‘America’s Undeclared War: What’s Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It’ (April 2001); and ‘The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy’ (June 1997). His articles on the history of right-wing nationalism in Ukraine can be found on the website of New Cold War.org, including: Who was Stepan Bandera? (Sept 2015) and Timothy Snyder’s Lies (June 2014).