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Saturday, March 23, 2019

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?


In advance of the release of such parts of the Mueller Report as we get to see, I am going to try to summarize what we know.  Two stipulations before I begin.  First, I am trying to get clear about what we know, not make moral or political judgments about its significance.  Second, I am going to rely on what I believe is well known.  If someone wants to say, for example, that the indictments brought by Mueller against Russians are simply invented out of whole cloth, or even that there is no one named Robert Mueller nor has there been any investigation conducted by this fictional character, I have nothing to say in response, save Go with God.

All right, let us start simple:

1.         Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.  He lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.

2.         Agents of the Russian government sought to influence the outcome of the election to the detriment of Hillary Clinton both by hacking into email accounts and by social media efforts.

3.         There is no direct evidence at all that the efforts by the Russians swayed so much as a single vote.  There is also no direct evidence that either the Democratic or the Republican Party or the two candidates and their campaign staffs by their efforts swayed so much as a single vote.  That is the nature of the secret ballot.  There have been credibly confirmed efforts criminally to sway American elections, most recently right here in good ole Carolina in the NC 9th CD, but not in the most recent presidential election.

4.         We can infer that Mueller did not find evidence of a conspiracy involving the Russian agents and Donald Trump or those associated with him to influence the election.  We can infer that because, although Department of Justice regulations would have barred Mueller from indicting Trump for such a crime, it is impossible to imagine that such evidence, if Mueller had it, would not also have implicated those around Trump, and Mueller says there are no further indictments to come from him.

5.         Did Trump and those around him collude with the Russians to influence the campaign?  “Collude” is not a legal term of art, it is an ordinary English word.  Did Trump and those around him know about the efforts of the Russians?  Yes.  They were told so in the email that triggered the Trump Tower meeting.  There is other evidence, but that will suffice.  Did Trump approve and encourage the Russian actions?  Yes.  How do I know?  I watched him do so on national TV [“Russia, if you are listening, etc. etc.”]  Let me pause to emphasize this.  Suppose Trump had vehemently denied knowing anything about hacked emails and Russia.  And suppose Mueller and his team had unearthed a handwritten note from Trump to someone in Russia, with his DNA on it, saying “Russia, if you’re listening etc. etc.”  From an evidentiary standpoint, there is no difference between the two.  They would have dramatically different psychological effects, but that is a different matter.

            Is this collusion?  Well, that depends on how you use the word.  If you use at as a synonym for “conspire, as defined by law” then the answer appears to be no.  If you use it to mean “know about and encourage,” then the answer is yes.

6.         Did Trump obstruct justice by seeking, with corrupt intent, to interfere with or terminate Mueller’s investigation?  How do I know?  Because Trump told me so [and also everyone else in the world] on Lester Holt’s show.  And also because he tried to get Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, and he ordered Don McGahn to fire Mueller, etc. etc.

So, I conclude that Trump colluded with the Russians but did not, so far as we know, conspire with them, that Trump obstructed justice, that the Russians tried to influence the American election, and that we have no idea whether they succeeded.

Why do I care?  First, because elections are one of the very few tools that people like me have to change this country, limited though those tools are.  And Second, because I hate Donald Trump and would enjoy seeing him humiliated and brought low.

Meanwhile, I wait to see what of the Mueller Report will be released.

20 comments:

Howie said...

You relate Trump's admission of collusion. Is that talk admissible as evidence?
Trump is a trash talker and is just saying whatever comes to his head.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Collusion is not defined in the criminal statutes, so"admissble as evidence" is irrelevant.

Chris said...

Professor Wolff,

I hope you won't tell me to go with God, please remember I really haven't tracked this whole affair nearly as intricately as you have, but what is the evidence for this claim:

"Agents of the Russian government sought to influence the outcome of the election to the detriment of Hillary Clinton both by hacking into email accounts"

Also, could you please specify whether or not that they *tried* to hack e-mails or *did* hack e-mails. To the best of my knowledge, there is actually ZERO evidence that wikileaks acquired those e-mails from russian operatives or that russian operatives were definitely the source of said e-mails. But my knowledge is very limited.

I agree with 99% of the rest of the post, my only weariness is that all the proposed roads suggested by the establishment to humiliate Trump are ensured to fail, and feed his base. Frankly, only debating Sanders will humiliate him - to my mind.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, everything I know comes from the indictment obtained by Mueller. See this site:

https://d3i6fh83elv35t.cloudfront.net/static/2018/07/Muellerindictment.pdf

Jerry Fresia said...

"If someone wants to say, for example, that the indictments brought by Mueller against Russians are simply invented out of whole cloth, or even that there is no one named Robert Mueller nor has there been any investigation conducted by this fictional character, I have nothing to say in response, save Go with God."

Your phrasing is interesting in that it equates people like myself who argue that thus far there has been zero public evidence of Russian hacking as taking a position which is equivalent to suggesting Robert Mueller is a fictional character. The indictment of Russians is not evidence. Would it be incorrect then to say that the issue, regarding Russian hacking (no small claim), at this moment turns on the matter of trust?

In any case, I would frame all of this differently. Not that long ago, we were all pulling our hair out in anticipation of Trump becoming president. Everyone was pulling the alarm. We might as well have been saying "All hands on deck; this is not a drill." I believe that there were people at the highest levels of government pulling their hair out as well. I remember Todd Gitlin saying that the crisis posed by a Trump presidency superseded whatever the next several high order policy concerns might be. My guess is that people like Brennan and Mueller were equally as alarmed. One difference between them and us, however, is that they were in a position to actually the most powerful levers in government . As everyone knows, a vast number of crimes have been committed in the name of national security. Indicting Russians for hacking, knowing that push would never come to shove, would be small potatoes. Who knows? But such a scenario doesn't seem far fetched to me.

Enter Coleen Rowley, "a retired FBI special agent and division legal counsel whose May 2002 memo to then-FBI Director Robert Mueller exposed some of the FBI’s pre-9/11 failures, was named one of TIME magazine’s “Persons of the Year” in 2002." Below is her up close and personal account of her interaction with Mueller. He doesn't come across as Mr. Straight and Narrow.

https://bit.ly/2r1akKg



David Palmeter said...

Jerry,

"The indictment of Russians is not evidence."

The indictment is based on evidence that Mueller believes would convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. If a case were to go to trial, presumably we'd see the evidence. The difficulty the government faces in prosecutions of cases like this is the risk of revealing intelligence sources and methods. They sometimes have to avoid making provable charges for this reason.

The details of the indictment of the Russians suggests strongly that Mueller has an incredible amount of detailed information--names, dates, places. Presumably, they're reading to reveal some sources or methods or both.

On the other hand, Mueller might have made it all up, but he doesn't appear to be the kind to do that.

Jerry Fresia said...

David,

I guess I'm not being clear. Mueller is known for his dirty deeds to protect and serve power. You obviously trust Mueller more than I do. I'm not saying that he is doing so now. But I am saying there is a whole lot of evidence that suggests a hack was not possible given the forensics. So I think it is incumbent on those who believe in the evidence not made public - and I doubt Mueller ever believed he would have to show the evidence at trial because there won't be any - to refute the forensic evidence that strongly supports the claim, made by seasoned NSA technical specialist, that the transfer of data to Wikileaks was from a leak, not a hack. But interestingly everyone to buys into the Russiagate narrative is silent on this counter evidence. Why?

The burden of proof is on you, not me.

I was an Air Force intelligence officer for 4 years during the Vietnam war (but not in theater; I was in Korea.). Based upon what I saw and knew, most of the controversial intelligence issues that drew public attention were hidden from the public for a single reason: to cover up possible crimes. Further, what struck me was that the military analysts at the time reporting for the major media were well aware that in many key instances what was being reported (during the Vietnam War) was false. But they would maintain the fiction. If I were making 7 million at MSNBC as Rachel was, I'd probably be trusting of the smart guys too.

I will follow whatever evidence is presented. Right now zero evidence of a hack has been made public and there is both evidence to the contrary and motive to at least raise serious suspicion about what Mueller alleges.

What I find troubling is the trust in Mueller, the CIA, and the FBI. How many times to we have to go down this road? I could be wrong. Hopefully, we'll find out, but I doubt it. Most Republicans believe that "we" found the WMD's in Iraq.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

As to the claim that the Russians were not the source of the the email hack and a ton of propaganda - fake news - posts on facebook I, like Dr. Wolff, rely on the indictments. I have no particular expertise in hacking, but I do have considerable experience in political campaigns and campaign tactics.

I saw a ton of fake news posts on fb throughout the 2016 campaign. The identified source of the posts were names you never heard of and couldn't confirm when you looked. The stories had headlines designed, as all headlines are, to attract attention. If you delved into the story, it typically got more unbelievable as you dug further into it. It was clear this material was not from campaign or campaign or party affiliated entities. They would have to properly identify themselves. It was also clear that in many cases the people writing these posts were not native English speakers.

As to Dr. Wolff's point that the social media campaign, or Russian actions more broadly, didn't swayed a single vote. They were not designed to sway votes in the sense of causing a voter to vote a certain way. Rather, they are designed to decrease turnout which is to the benefit of Republican candidates as a general rule. The Clinton and DNC email releases functioned to keep putting that issue on the front pages giving Trump the ability to keep hammering on it thereby constantly reinforcing Clinton's negatives. The social media directed at the African American voters was designed to reinforce reasons not to vote by pushing the belief that the better course action was to boycott the election and focus on other means to advance African American issues. Media targeted to conservative groups was designed to encourage support and turnout.

Where did these fake news posts - in the jargon of the analysts of this type of fake news, computational propaganda - on fb and other social media platforms come from? It requires 'big data analytics' to produce and distribute these posts in a targeted way.

I don't find the the case that Russian entities didn't hack DNC or Clinton emails compelling. I have not heard anyone claim that the social media disinformation campaign wasn't a Russian backed/produced/financed effort. And the question I would pose to those who think it wasn't the Russians is: if not Russia, then who, and where is the evidence.?

s. wallerstein said...

I haven't followed this issue with the same attention that all of you have, but it seems to me that the basic question here isn't whether the Russians hacked the emails, but whether Trump conspired with the Russians.

Let's try to look at this from the point of view of the evil Mr. Putin. Let's suppose that he is the Machiavellian master spy, Karla from John Le Carré's Smiley novels, that the mainstream media paint him to be. Putin wants Trump to win the election, for a number of reasons, among them that he blames Hillary's husband for the decline of his beloved Russian during the Yeltsin years. He wants someone in the White House who will owe him a favor of two. For that he doesn't need any conspiracy or any secret deal.

In fact, Putin looks at Trump and sees that he has a big mouth and is a braggard and so he understands that it's not smart to have any shared secrets with this clown. Anyway, he wants Trump in power for 8 years and he senses that any secret deal will be revealed during the first 4 years by the Democrats. So all Putin needs is to signal to Trump that he is on his side: maybe he hacks the emails, maybe he doesn't. He has his guys all over Facebook supporting Trump with fake news in any case. He realizes that Trump will get the message sooner or later.

So it is unlikely that there was any conspiracy, any secret deal between Trump and Putin.

Note: I'm not claiming that Trump is Putin's agent, that Putin sends him instructions in boxes of caviar, simply that Putin assumes that when push comes to shove, Trump will not be as hostile towards him as Hillary or a similar mainstream Democrat would have been.
All Putin has to do to see that is to read the New York Times and the U.S. liberal media in general to see that for good or bad reasons, they see him as the symbol of all that they detest and have contempt for.

David Palmeter said...

Jerry,

Do you really believe that Mueller would make up all the factual assertions in the indictment of the Russians? That he could get 15 or 20 top-flight prosecutors, plus all of the support staff that would know what was going on to keep quiet and risk their own careers?

I too spent time with Army intelligence, 3 years, in Washington, albeit at a very low level. But I knew what was going on around me, and I never saw anything like what you're suggesting. Covering up mistakes is more than plausible--what bureaucracy doesn't? But making something up out whole cloth is something else. After the Army, I was a trial attorney at DOJ handling fraud cases. There is no way that any decision to prosecute anyone could be made by a single individual at DOJ, unless it was the person at the top acting totally on his own. Do you think Mueller was doing that? Imagine that he had done so. He would have been faced with a mass walk-out of his professional staff who wouldn't want their careers ruined by some creating allegations of criminal behavior out of whole cloth.

Jerry Fresia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerry Fresia said...

David,

I believe that Mueller would set himself on fire if he thought it would advance the interests of the empire.

Whatever he and Brennan and the rest are up to, it is far better for Trump than a one way trip to Dallas.

Look, those who dispute the hacking theorem have presented lots of forensic evidence to make their case. Those who

sing the praises of the 17 intel agencies and all the rest, have presented zip. Without evidence, it comes down to a question

of trust, doesn't it? Do you trust the CIA and the FBI? I certainly don't. (Anyway, I've been blabbing on to much here. Ciao!)

Matt said...

We can infer that Mueller did not find evidence of a conspiracy involving the Russian agents and Donald Trump or those associated with him to influence the election.

Without wanting to affirm the opposite (that Mueller did find such evidence), I want to suggest that this is too strong, as written, given what we know now. It's perfectly possible that there was evidence of this found, and that it was non-trivial, but that it did not seem likely to be sufficient to get a conviction, or that it was based on sources that, for legal or political or security reasons, could not be used in court. This sort of situation isn't at all unusual in investigations, and it certainly wouldn't surprise me here. Again, this isn't a suggestion that there is any such substantial evidence (beyond what is publicly known), only to note that, at this point, the claim that no evidence was found is not yet strongly supported.

Ed Barreras said...

I’m late to this convo and Professor Wolff has now called a “time out” so I’ll keep what I have to say brief. In any case, David, Christopher Mulvaney, and Matt have made the important points already.

The question I would pose to Jerry is: If you truly believe Mueller is a bad actor with an endless capacity to commit “dirty deeds to protect and serve power,” why do you seem so eager to accept Mueller’s apparent exoneration of T***p (emphasis on “apparent” — let’s wait for the report, if we ever see it)? Might not that just be another one of his dirty deeds?

We’ve witnessed T***p’s enormous, cult-like popularity among the GOP base, and we’ve seen him willing to do the party’s bidding when it comes tax policy and appointing a cavalcade of 40-year-old, ultra-conservative judges. The GOP establishment has seen that, too. Thus, despite initial reservations, they have now decided that four or — gulp — eight years of T***p is an acceptable trade-off.

Might not Mueller have made the same calculation? Might not Russiagate represent Iran Contra 2.0, where the misdeeds of the powerful are swept under the rug?

Now I’m not saying that what I believe. I don’t. Matt’s explanation above strikes me as the most plausible explanation for why we’ve come to this place. (But again, let’s wait for the *full* report!). My point is that if we’re going to begin from conspiratorial assumptions, then there’s no end to the scenarios that become plausible.

Also, as I’ve pointed out before, Russian involvement in DNC hacks has been affirmed by several independent cyber-security firms, people who —unlike anyone here — have the requisite expertise to judge such things.

Anonymous said...

Reading the previous comments I was reminded of a press conference Tony Blair gave as he was selling the invasion of Iraq to the British public.

If memory serves, Blair was standing before a podium, some notes on top of it.

By my recollection of the event, the journalists were not buying Blair's account and were insistently demanding evidence.

Blair, more than a little exasperated, grabbed the papers from the podium and shaking them in the air said something to the effect that the proof was there, but he couldn't show it... because it was a secret!

I have less faith in bureaucrats. They're the ones who prepare papers like those Blair was shaking.

Chris said...

All of you arguing the case that secretly, maybe, just kinda sorta, there really is evidence for collusion, have to know that you can never disprove the existence of anything. You're left arguing that Russell's teapot really is behind the sun. Of course it's not definitively the case that collusion didn't occur, but it's also not definitively the case that big foot watches me sleep. Let's move on!

Dean said...

Don't you mean "...that big foot doesn't watch me sleep"? Or is my logic tangled in negatives?

s. wallerstein said...

The details are out, and as far as Mueller determined, Trump did not conspire with the Russians.

For two years the mainstream liberal media have bombarded us with news about how Trump did.
What does that say about them? They have better sources of inside information than we do, and it seems unlikely to me that they were innocently deceived by whoever started the rumor, although I do believe that the participants in this blog who insisted that Trump was Putin's agent or co-conspirator were victims of media manipulation.

What can we say about the supposedly most prestigious media in a supposedly democratic country which invent and insist on a false story for years? Yes, they've done it before, but even in the case of Viet Nam I recall more doubts in the New York Times about the official version than I saw this time around, before I simply gave up reading the New York Times, for good I do believe.

What can we say about a supposedly progressive party, the mainstream Democrats, which instead of analyzing the reasons for their electoral defeat in the last presidential election sell us what now is clearly a ridiculous story about Trump and Putin being co-conspirators in a non-existent plot? They are seemingly incapable of honestly analyzing the phenomenon of Trumpism, of his appeal as a populist anti-establishment rightwing candidate. I give up on them as I gave up on the New York Times.

Maybe it's time to start from scratch and build a real left alternative. That can begin with Sanders and AOC if the mainstream Democrats don't destroy them, which I fear that they will.

Ed Barreras said...

Wallerstein,

Probably two-thirds of my comments on this blog concerning Russia have been in disputes (mostly with Jerry Fresia) about whether Russia did interfere with the election; in particular about whether Russian agents were repsonsible for the DNC hacks. Mueller has found that they were responsible, and Barr’s letter emphatically affirms that finding. So if you, or any other Russiagate skeptic, are willing to accept Mueller’s determination that the evidence doesn’t warrant a conspiracy charge against T***p and his associates, are you also willing to accept his determination about Russian interference more generally?

You say that the Russia story is founded on a “rumor,” but remember the order of events that brought the story back into mainstream conversation. (For several months after the 2016 election, Russiagate completely fell off the radar, thanks in no small part to a story that appeared just prior to the election in — of all places — the New York Times that seems to exonerate the T***p campaign of illicit connections to Russia.) The narrative here is complicated, but basically Mike Flynn was found to have lied to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador; T***p pressured FBI director Comey to “let the Flynn thing go”; then, when Comey wouldn’t oblige, T***p fired him and publicly cited the Russia investigation into his own campaign as the reason. Even Glenn Greenwald, one of the most vociferous Russiagate skeptic, admitted that the firing of Comey was “truly shocking.” In fact he said it was the *first* truly shocking thing T***p had done; he was right. This is what led to the appointment of the special council. So no, I don’t think it’s accurate at all to say that the story was based on a rumor or “invented”.

As for your contention that the mainstream media was privy to inside information about the story being bogus but decided to hype it up anyway — I just don’t know what to say. While our mainstream media certainly does serve a propagandistic function, I don’t see that that entails the kind of deception you’re positing. If anyone at the Times of the WaPo had a scoop from inside Mueller’s office, they surely would have reported it.

And can we put to rest this meme about the Democratic Party’s eagerness to push the Russia narrative as an excuse for their loss in 2016? This is mostly false. The fact is that the party establishment has always considered the Russia issue radioactive because — why else? — it’s never polled well. If the midterm election was won on a single issue, it was healthcare. The main pushers of the Russia story have been MSNBC and — not surprisingly — Hillary Clinton. That isn’t the Democratic establishment. (That said, there were a lot of grumbling from Pelosi et al about T***p’s connections to Putin following the Helsinki summit — and I even seem to vaguely recall a comment from you delighting in the sight of a US President supplicating himself for once.)

There’s much more to be said about the developments of the past 24 hours. I’ll spare you. But at the very least I hope you agree that we should see the full report. Don’t let your skepticism of power give out now that those in power have reached a conclusion you like. What would you say if, following the Iran Contra scandal, Ronald Reagan had fired his atttorney general; and then, in lieu of releasing the full report from a special council, that attorney general’s carefully-chosen replacement had issued a four-page “summary” that left more questions than it answered? I think you’d be more than little unsatisfied.

Finally, I’m as enthusiastic as you are about the movement represented by Sanders and AOC.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

I have no idea whether the Russians interfered in the U.S. election. I assume that the U.S. tries to hack the Russians, the Russians try to hack the U.S., the Chinese hack both, etc. That's the game.

I have a psychological mechanism, that when I'm deceived by someone whom I trust, my indignation is greater than when I don't trust the person in the first place.

The first time I saw Trump, in the Republican primary debates, I sized him up as a clown, a narcissist, a liar and a braggart. I've never placed any faith in him.

On the other hand, in spite of the multiple times that they've lied to me, I still had a lingering faith in the Democrats and the mainstream liberal media. I was raised to see the New York Times and the mainstream Democrats as serious. I wasn't considered entirely serious myself and I've never seen myself as a serious person: I know myself too well. That's my problem, I know, not yours. But I think that lots of people find it hard to understand that the Democrats and the mainstream liberal media, so serious, so well-educated, unlike Trump who is ignorant and vulgar, lie and lie and lie.

I'm through with them. I hope that I haven't become serious, because Sartre is right after all that the spirit of seriousness implies bad faith and lying to oneself.