Part 5—Trump Junior's famous meeting: What role does information play in our national discourse? Consider the chatter on cable news, just last night.
Again and again and again and again, we saw Donald J. Trump pounded for his allegedly stupid remark about the way Putin helped the federal government by barring 755 employees from American embassies in Russia.
Allegedly, Trump had made a stupid remark. Perhaps sardonically, he'd said the firings will help the federal government save some money on payroll.
Everyone saw how stupid that was, since the employees who came home would stay on the federal payroll.
It's a minor point, but the jibe against Donald J. Trump was repeated all over MSNBC and CNN. Since transcripts haven't yet appeared from last night, we'll offer an early version of the critique from yesterday afternoon's MTP Daily.
Chuck Todd spoke with Daniella Gibbs Leger of American Progress:
TODD (8/10/17): Here's the president's response to the decision by Russia to expel U.S. diplomats. Here's the president.Last night, all over cable, Trump was trashed for stupidly thinking that the people Putin expelled would no longer be getting paid. It made a wonderful talking point on MSNBC and CNN.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you have any response to the Russian president expelling 755 workers from our embassy?
TRUMP: No, I want to thank him because we're trying to cut down on payroll. And as far as I'm concerned, I'm very thankful that he let go of a large number of people, because now we have a smaller payroll.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: Well, that was obviously a little tongue in cheek statement, because last time I checked, I don't think these diplomats are actually, were going to stop getting paid. But Daniella—
GIBBS LEGER: Was it "tongue in cheek?"
TODD: I don't know. OK, you`re right! Literally or seriously!
GIBBS LEGER: Yes, I mean, who knows? Maybe he actually thinks that once Putin expelled these people, who apparently worked for Putin, in the way that he phrased that, they don't get paid anymore. You just don't know with this president.
That said, does information matter? In this morning's New York Times, Peter Baker, an experienced Russia hand, reported this set of facts:
BAKER (8/11/17): As of 2013, the latest year that numbers are publicly available, 1,279 people worked at the United States Embassy in Moscow and at American consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. The vast majority of those who will lose their jobs are Russian nationals, not American diplomats, who will be brought home. Assuming the current force is about the same, Mr. Putin’s order will require a nearly 60 percent reduction."The vast majority of those who will lose their jobs are Russian nationals?"
Presumably, that means the U. S. government actually will be saving payroll, just as our perspicacious president said. Apparently, most of the expelled employees aren't actual "diplomats," or so Baker seems to have said.
This is a minor point. Within the current "fire and fury" context, it's completely trivial. That said, this topic was discussed all over cable last night, with Trump being trashed for his remarkable dumbness.
We have no idea if Trump understood the basic facts of the case. We certainly wouldn't assume that he did. But if Baker's apparent statements are accurate, it's fairly clear that our legion of cable pundits didn't understand the basic facts here either, almost two weeks after the expulsion order occurred.
What's the role of facts and information in our national discourse? For many years, we've told you that information plays a remarkably limited role—that our national discourse is, increasingly, narrative all the way down.
Routinely, our pundits tell us pre-approved stories in which the facts have been massaged. Given the spread of partisan news orgs, they tend to embellish, invent and disappear facts to tell us the stories we like.
Is that the role of information in our national discourse? As a summer logic assignment before the start of classes this fall, let's return to the recent discussion of that now-famous meeting at Trump Tower, the meeting Trump Junior agreed to hold with the now-famous Russian lawyer.
Let's use that event to think about the logic of information.
Civilized people have all agreed—Trump Junior shouldn't have agreed to hold that now-famous meeting. Yesterday, we cited a column by Ruth Marcus in which she expressed this view quite strongly, partly because Marcus herself is perfectly sane and bright.
Should Trump Junior have held that meeting? As she opened her column, Marcus offered an unqualified answer: No!
For our summer logic assignment, we want you to ponder Marcus' reason for reaching tht judgment. Assertive hard-copy headline included, this is the way she began:
MARCUS (7/16/17): The. Meeting. Was. Not. Okay.Marcus employed a wealth of periods to assert that the famous meeting just. wasn't. okay. For your summer logic assignment, we want you to ponder the theoretical role of information, then tell us if Marcus was right.
Every week—nearly every day—brings fresh, stomach-churning evidence of President Trump's unfitness for office. The latest may be the most revolting.
Confronted with incontrovertible proof that his son leapt at the prospect of meeting with a "Russian government attorney" offering to dish dirt on Hillary Clinton as "part of Russia and its government's support" for his candidacy, the president took the position that this was political business as usual.
His first public reaction, in an interview with Reuters, was that "many people would have held that meeting." The next day, Trump ratcheted up that astonishing assertion, from "many" to "most," asserting, "I think from a practical standpoint, most people would have taken that meeting. . . . Politics isn't the nicest business in the world, but it's very standard."
No. It. Isn't.
Please note! Marcus quickly put her thumb on the scale as she tried to stampede her readers. She said that Trump Junior was promised "dirt" if he held the meeting in question.
In fact, the email, from a music publicist, had promised him "information." Therein lies the logical rub.
Donald Trump Junior was told, by a publicist, that he could receive "information" from a "Russian government lawyer." As it turned out, the lawyer may not, strictly speaking, have been a government lawyer. Beyond that, we have no way of knowing if Trump Junior assumed she actually was.
But for the sake of our rumination, let's assume the worst! Let's assume that a Russian government lawyer told Trump Junior, through an intermediary, that she had information to share.
We're told that Junior should have said no to the information. For ourselves, we're not sure why.
Please note! Marcus made little attempt to justify or explain her judgment, which she seemed to hold quite strongly. How strongly did she hold this view? Soon, she was saying this:
MARCUS: [T]his meeting was unacceptable. It was not even in the exurbs of appropriate. Hard to believe this really requires spelling out, but apparently it does, so here goes: A candidate for president of the United States and his campaign have no business, none, trucking with an emissary of a foreign government peddling incriminating information about their opponent.According to Marcus, the meeting was unacceptable, astonishing, not even dimly appropriate. It was sordid, chilling, repulsive and revolting.
That this meeting was explicitly described as an element of a Russian plot to influence the U.S. election is icing on an already repulsive cake. That the target of this feeler—the candidate's son—embraced such meddling rather than recoiling from it only adds to the sordidness of the episode.
And that the intended beneficiary, now the sitting president of the United States, is unable and unwilling to accept that fact should be chilling to every patriotic American.
Needless to say, it's possible that Marcus could be shown to be right. But as she "spells it out" in this passage, the only thing she really does is heighten her invective.
That said, she did use the word "information." Therein lies the rub!
If this Russian lawyer actually had some information, what exactly would have been wrong with receiving it? Why should Trump Junior, or anyone else, refuse to receive this product?
Should Junior have refused the chance to receive alleged information? As part of our summer rumination, let's imagine scenarios which may have played out had Junior failed to read his email that day from that music publicist:
Other scenarios involving information:In those four ways, the information, if it existed, could have been made public. Let's assume that one of those scenarios had occurred:
The Russian lawyer comes to D.C. and rents the National Press Club. She makes a speech revealing the information in question. C-Span tapes the whole thing!
The Russian lawyer writes a column in The Hill revealing the information.
The Russian lawyer appears on Morning Joe, where she shares the information with Willie.
Vladimir Putin gives a bare-chested U.N. speech. He reveals the information.
Should the Trump campaign, and American newspapers, have ignored the information because it came from a Russkie? Because that certainly isn't the way our big newspapers actually act!
Last summer, Marcus' own Washington Post bathed itself in stolen information (stolen emails), even when the stolen emails contained no worthwhile information at all.
(That wasn't Marcus' fault. For the most egregious example, click here. Don't let your children watch.)
If that's the way the Post itself acts, why should Trump Junior have refused possible information from the Russian lawyer? Why should he, or anyone else, refuse information at all?
In her column, Marcus made little attempt to answer this question. Others have imagined undesirable scenarios which might imaginably have followed the meeting in question, but we're asking a simple theoretical question:
Assuming we know what information is, why should anyone ever refuse to receive it? If the same information had been offered by a Canadian lawyer, would it have been okay to accept it then?
(Obviously, any such alleged "information" could turn out to be trivial or bogus. Our question is: why should someone refuse the chance to find out? Why should they refuse to use information if it turns out to be accurate and relevant?)
Please understand: for ourselves, we've long complained about the way our politics is increasingly driven by "incriminating information." We'd much prefer that the national discourse focus on policy questions, not on assessments of character. (In our view, the mainstream press has shown little skill at making such assessments.)
That said, our upper-end press corps, and our politicians, largely traffic in such approaches. If a campaign is offered some such information, why should they refuse to accept it, when newspapers love it so much?
Last night, our cable corps trafficked in a story line in which they seem to have bungled their facts. No one is going to care about that, one way or the other. Why should Trump Junior, or anyone else, refuse the possibility of acquiring actual facts?
We've often said that facts and information play little role in our national discourse, or in the world of our mainstream press. In this instance, they screeched and howled about the very idea of seeking information.
If that Russkie lawyer actually had some real information, what would have been wrong with Trump Junior receiving it? We sometimes wonder if our major journos, who may be bots, understand the very concept of "information."
Our summer logic assignment involves that rather basic concept. Before returning to school in the fall, we'd like you to ponder this, in small groups:
Someone offers you information. Before you know what it may be, why would you want to refuse it?
When is information forbidden? When are you supposed to take a hike on receiving facts?
Tomorrow: Endless summer/Kakutani's review
More about those expelled employees: In the past two weeks, we'd been wondering why our Russians embassies have so many employees in the first place.
We never saw anyone explain it on cable. Baker explains today.