Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘Russia’

The meaning of “is”

One of Bill Clinton’s most famous contributions to the political lexicon is

It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.

This was his defense from the accusation of having lied when he explicitly said, of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky,

There is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship.

It was immediately obvious that there was something strange about his somewhat tortured insistence on the present tense, where what he was asked to deny was in the past. Of course, we know that he was trying to be extremely clever in making a statement that was literally true, while seeming to deny an accusation that he knew to be correct.

Now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has spoken out, not in his own defense, but in defense of the president:

“In all of this, in any of this, there’s been no evidence that there’s any collusion between the Trump campaign and the President and Russia,” he said. “Let’s just make that clear — there is no collusion.”

Is he being ironic?

Landing the plane

One of the weirder stories to come up right after the 9/11 attacks was that the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui  — the Al Qaeda operative who was arrested by the FBI a month before the attack — raised the suspicions of the flight school teacher because he wasn’t interested in learning how to land the plane. In fact, this doesn’t seem to have been true, but the instructor said one of the things that aroused his suspicions was that Moussaoui was interested in how to turn off the oxygen and the transponder. They also thought it was odd that he was starting with learning to fly jumbo jets, which clearly could not part of any rational career strategy.

He also had a weird reason for wanting to learn to fly a jumbo jet, said Nelson — he told them that he merely wanted to be able to boast to his friends that he could fly a 747.

“He was telling us that it’s an ego thing,” Nelson said. “That’s a lot of money to spend to play.”

“I need to know if you can help me achieve my ‘goal,’ my dream,” Moussaoui wrote, listing five types of Boeing and Airbus jets. “To be able to pilot one of these Big Birds, even if I am not a real professional pilot.”

There’s an oddly similar story in The Guardian’s new report on Cambridge Analytica’s possibly even more consequential attack on the British and US elections, facilitated by Facebook. There was this pitch that the company made to the Russian oil conglomerate Lukoil in 2014:

A slide presentation prepared for the Lukoil pitch focuses first on election disruption strategies used by Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, in Nigeria. They are presented under the heading “Election: Inoculation”, a military term used in “psychological operations” and disinformation campaigns. Other SCL documents show that the material shared with Lukoil included posters and videos apparently aimed at alarming or demoralising voters, including warnings of violence and fraud.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who has come forward to talk to the Observer, said it was never entirely clear what the Russian firm hoped to get from the operation.

“Alexander Nix [Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica]’s presentation didn’t make any sense to me,” said Wylie, who left Cambridge Analytica soon after the initial meetings. “If this was a commercial deal, why were they so interested in our political targeting?”

Lukoil did not respond to requests for comments.

I guess even oil conglomerates have dreams. And they can find clueless techies willing to make their dreams come true.

Light red-baiting from Russian state media

Screenshot 2018-03-14 12.58.16Screenshot 2018-03-14 12.57.40

His master’s voice

 

So yesterday I was reading about the White House position on the nerve-agent poisoning  of Sergei Skripal et al.:

White House declines to back UK’s assertion that Russia is behind poisonings of ex-spies

Not what you would expect if you believed that the US would stand up for its number-one lapdog ally, but obviously someone in the White House is concerned about not upsetting the Kremlin. But then there was a report that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said

Russia is ‘clearly’ behind spy poisoning and ‘must face serious consequences’

This seemed like a significant disagreement. And I thought, either this reflects a change of position — perhaps with more information implicating the Russians — or Rex is freestyling. Presumably Tillerson is speaking for the state department professionals and the White House is speaking for… Well, let’s just say that Vlad would want to see some evidence that Donald hasn’t forgotten who he’s working for. I was expecting there to be some sort of demeaning tweet about Tillerson’s height or his body odour, or something.

And today we have this:

Rex Tillerson Out as Trump’s Secretary of State, Replaced by Mike Pompeo

Weird coincidence. Even if Tillerson’s ouster actually had been planned long in advance, it’s pretty obvious that a small delay would have prevented this appearance of truckling to the Kremlin’s interests. Which means that, whatever else may have motivated this step, that appearance was almost certainly desired.

Trump’s cheap shyster responds to the former FBI director

I know that Donald Trump is famously stingy, but I would have thought a man with his history of persistent involvement with the shady side of the law would appreciate the value of competent legal assistance. Instead, he has this guy:

President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer on Wednesday responded to fired FBI Director James Comey’s prepared testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee by saying that Trump felt “completely and totally vindicated.”

“The president is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the President was not under investigation in any Russia probe,” Marc Kasowitz wrote in a statement. “The president feels completely and totally vindicated.”

Seriously? The FBI director has presented what most people would consider overwhelming evidence of attempted obstruction of justice, attempting to block investigation of his close associates, strikingly similar but even more blatant than the actions for which Richard Nixon was forced to resign. The best his lawyer can come up with is to say that, in the course of the discussions in which he attempted to obstruct justice the president received assurances that he was not, at that point, two months ago, personally a target of investigation. That’s what he calls “totally vindicated”.

I suppose this is what you get when top law firms consider the president too skeezy to associate with.

Donald Trump’s Lawyer and the Monty Hall Shadow

Our distant descendants hunkering in their radiation-proof underwater bunkers will speak of “Donald Trump’s lawyer” proverbially, as an oxymoronic self-flagellating professions, the way we might speak of “Bernie Madoff’s accountant” or “Jeffrey Dahmer’s nutritionist” or “Water-safety officer on the Titanic”. Tom Lehrer spoke on one of his satirical LPs from the 1960s about people following the news with unease, feeling “like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis”. One might similarly say “I feel like Donald Trump’s lawyer”.

Our story to date: When last we saw Sheri Dillon it was a week before Donald Trump’s inauguration, and she spoke beside a table full of binders — none of which were ever seen by the public — which supposedly showed that Trump was taking some unspecified action that would resolve all legal and ethical conflicts arising from his business interests. They were the most prominent unseen-document-political-props since Joseph McCarthy’s infamous “list” of “known communists”. (Or perhaps Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women”.) (more…)

White House samsara

Is there some cosmic law of recurrence that decreed that as soon as Donald Trump had decided to go full-Nixon by firing the FBI director who was investigating his crimes, Henry Kissinger would pop up in the Oval Office?

Was he really there in the flesh, or were the photographers astonished to find his image appear on the film negatives? “Where two or three are gathered to subvert the Constitution, there am I among you.”

The serious point is, this shows how Trump’s impulsiveness (fortunately) gets in the way of his authoritarian showmanship. Presumably, a competent would-be strongman would have found a moment to subvert the rule of law for reasons that HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH TREASONOUS CONTACTS WITH MOSCOW (which didn’t happen anyway), when he wasn’t scheduled to meet the next day with his handler the Russian ambassador and with Nixon’s Watergate henchman National Security Advisor.

Comey of errors

After the November US election I agreed with many commentators, who said that Comey really should resign for his failures of judgement or (depending on who you’re listening to) malfeasance with regard to the Clinton email server investigation, that it would provide partisan satisfaction for Democrats for him to be forced out, but that it was essential for the nation for him to stay in office as an independent check on the president’s authoritarian impulses. Some said he has the most secure job in Washington, since Republicans and Democrats both wanted to keep him, albeit for very different reasons.

Apparently not.

We’re used to thinking of scandals as something that will damage the politicians involved if and when they come out, possibly driving them from office. But that’s not always how it works. That isn’t even really the fundamental dynamic. Hidden criminality by people in power locks them in a death struggle with the rule of law and the system of honest democratic politics. Only one can survive. If the politician has weak support, or self-doubt, or respect for democratic norms then it’s like a moon in Jupiter’s gravitation — for all intents and purpose we can just say it’s the massive planet (the constitutional system) acting on the small body. But it can be more like a black hole interacting with a star: Both are perturbed, and until they get close you can’t judge how massive the black hole is. (more…)

Trump’s foreign affairs

I was thinking about this comment by Josh Marshall

One of the first bits of news that attracted attention to this possible link was a Trump campaign effort to soften the GOP platform’s plank on Russia and Ukraine at the GOP convention.

I think this fits the development of my thinking, more or less, but it leaves something out. As someone who nothing of the personalities involved, I was already primed to think there was something important and odd about Trump’s connections to Ukraine in particular by the reporting on his hiring of Paul Manafort to advise his campaign in March 2016, and Manafort later becoming campaign manager in April. I remember very clearly thinking, how peculiar that someone with so much foreign experience is guiding a US presidential campaign. And someone who has been working in Ukraine, of all places. Within the context of US politics, which is usually so parochial, an operative who had gone off to work for Eastern European oligarchs and Third World dictators seemed inherently corrupt, like many of the figures that Trump associated with in New York real estate who had slipped across the border from shady dealing into outright criminality, and could no longer be seen in respectable society.

I interpreted it as a sign of Trump’s inability to attract normal campaign operatives to his strange ethno-nationalist insurgency. But then there was this 28 April article by Franklin Foer in Slate:

Some saw the hiring of Manafort as desperate, as Trump reaching for a relic from the distant past in the belated hope of compensating for a haphazard campaign infrastructure. In fact, securing Manafort was a coup. He is among the most significant political operatives of the past 40 years, and one of the most effective…
Manafort has spent a career working on behalf of clients that the rest of his fellow lobbyists and strategists have deemed just below their not-so-high moral threshold. Manafort has consistently given his clients a patina of respectability that has allowed them to migrate into the mainstream of opinion, or close enough to the mainstream. He has a particular knack for taking autocrats and presenting them as defenders of democracy. If he could convince the respectable world that thugs like Savimbi and Marcos are friends of America, then why not do the same for Trump? One of his friends told me, “He wanted to do his thing on home turf. He wanted one last shot at the big prize.”

Electric guillotines

Just reading The Vanquished, Robert Gerwarth’s history of the violence that followed the ostensible end of the First World War. He has this to say about the atrocity rumours that circulated about the Bolsheviks:

Although the reality of the civil war was so terrible that it hardly needed any embellishment, fantastical stories about Lenin’s regime flourished and drifted westwards: of a social order turned upside down, of a never-ending cycle of atrocities and retribution amid moral collapse in what had previously been one of the Great Powers of Europe. Several American newspapers reported that the Bolsheviks had introduced an electrically operated guillotine in Petrograd designed to decapitate 500 prisoners an hour… The Bolsheviks, or so it was suggested [in the British press], had ‘nationalized middle- and upper-class women, who might now be raped at will by any member of the proletariat. Orthodox churches had been turned into brothels in which aristocratic women were forced to offer sexual services to ordinary workers. Chinese executioners had been recruited by the Bolsheviks for their knowledge of ancient oriental torture techniques, while inmates in the infamous Cheka prisons had their heads stuck into cages filled with hungry rats in order to extort information.

It seems that there are three things that escalate the ordinary horror of despotic violence into extraordinary horror, all of which are touched upon here:

  1. Violation of the natural order, particularly of a sexual nature.
  2. Upwelling of arcane, precivilised, non-European presumptively diabolic culture.
  3. Abuse of modern technological means toward barbaric ends.

I’m particularly fascinated by the last, represented by the “electrically operated guillotines”, which prefigure the genuine industrialised slaughter of the Holocaust. More than the scale of the killing — which could be achieved by other means — it is the industrial precision that unsettles people, and makes the Holocaust unique. Or, perhaps better said, makes us want to see it as unique.

It’s hard to disentangle these feelings about the Holocaust, which is what makes the electric guillotines so useful: It’s not that this would have been all that exceptional, to kill 500 prisoners in an hour, and you wouldn’t need anything as unusual as an electrically operated guillotine. (It’s not even clear to me how electricity would accelerate a guillotine significantly.) But the combination of electricity, then the prime symbol of modernisation, with mass execution, was shocking.

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