Ruminations on oppo research: We're sometimes puzzled by the things we hear major journalists say.
Early this morning, we were puzzled by a conversation between Mike Pesca and Jacob Weisberg, both of Slate. You can listen to their conversation in this new episode of The Gist. The relevant discussion starts around minute 10.
The gents can be heard discussing the fact that the Clinton campaign helped pay for the Steele dossier. Soon, they're comparing what Candidate Clinton did in that instance to what Donald Trump Jr. did at his now-famous secret meeting with the Russian lawyer.
Along the way, the gentlemen say that opposition research is sleazy, dirty and disappointing. We don't see why they think that, but eventually Pesca takes us where the rubber meets the road.
At its heart, this presentation involves a very good question:
PESCA (10/25/17): So here's what Trump's going to say...He's going to say something like, "What is so different between one of the candidates in a presidential election hiring a foreigner to put together damaging information on the other candidate, versus what my son Don Jr. is being accused of, which is meeting with a foreigner who offered to supply damaging information to the other candidate?"In Pesca's slightly puzzing formulation, Clinton hired a foreigner (Steele) to gather negative information about Trump. Somewhat similarly, Trump Junior was willing to let a foreigner (the Russian lawyer) give him negative information about Clinton.
"What's the difference?" Pesca asks, saying that Trump will say this. Although his formulation seems a bit strange, we think that's an excellent question.
Let's start with Clinton. In principle, there's nothing wrong with hiring someone to develop damaging information on your opponent. You can always gather such information by nefarious or illegal means. But in principle, there's nothing wrong with gathering negative information.
Having said that about Candidate Clinton, we remain inclined to say the same thing about Trump Junior. In principle, we still don't see what would have been wrong with accepting negative information about Candidate Clinton, whoever he got it from.
It isn't clear that Trump Junior ever received any such information from the now-famous Russian lawyer. But if the Russian lawyer had some actual information about Clinton, we don't see what would be wrong with accepting that info if you're the Trump campaign.
Speaking through Trump's imagined voice, Pesca was asking a very good question. Around the 12-minute mark, he put it to Weisberg again, and he got Weisberg's reply:
PESCA: So again, I'll go back to the question. When Donald Trump makes that point, "What's the huge difference?" what's the answer?Weisberg goes on, at some length, about how wrong this would be. Basically, though, his answer is this:
WEISBERG: Conspiring with an enemy power. Russia's an enemy power...You shouldn't be doing business with them, at all, about anything, around an American election.
We still have no idea why Weisberg says what he says. Let's go back in time and do a bit of imagining:
Suppose some official of this enemy power knew something bad about Trump and wanted to share it. Let's even suppose that we're talking about Putin himself.
We're supposing that Putin's claim about Trump is true, and that it could be proven. Putin knows something bad about Trump, and he wants to pass it on.
Weisberg is saying that the Clinton campaign, in this case, shouldn't listen to Putin, or to some Russian lawyer. Now let's suppose something else:
Let's suppose that Putin decides to give a public speech in which he reveals the provable, unflattering information about Clinton or Trump. Weisberg makes it sound like we should put our hands over our ears and say "La la la la la la" so that we won't be able to hear what Putin says.
Go ahead! Listen to what Weisberg says, and tell us this doesn't follow.
Our point is simple:
Information is information, no matter who supplies it. It's information if a Brit named Christopher Steele presents it in a dossier as part of a paid research mission. It's information if it comes from a Russian lawyer, or even from a Russkie named Putin, whether he's making a public speech or speaking to you on the phone.
An accurate fact remains a fact no matter who reveals it! There's nothing wrong with receiving true facts from an "oppo research" project. But also, we can't see why there would be something wrong with receiving actual info, some accurate fact, from a Russian lawyer.
Information is information, no matter where it comes from! As we walk through this vale of tears, we sometimes wonder if major journalists retain a clear idea of what information is!
We recommend the discussion at Slate. We also find it puzzling.
These journalists today: In best eye-catching fashion, the dossier is described in Slate's headline as "the pee tape."
We understand the reference to pee all too well. The pee tape? You tell us!