Veselnitskaya should have been paid: And so it goes, as the pundit world turns. The jumbled discussion about foreign "dirt" has given way to the entertaining discussion about Donald J. Trump firing his pollsters.
These serial pseudo-discussions are almost always Potemkin. They may look like coherent discussions, but in the end they typically aren't.
Our public discussions rarely make sense. Consider the murky, jumbled, now-suspended discussion about Donald J. Trump and receipt of foreign dirt.
It started with an imprecise set of questions from George Stephanopoulos. (Our press corps discussions almost always run on that kind of fuel.)
By the time Trump had 1) directly answered George; 2) tweeted about his initial remarks; then 3) finally spoken to Fox & Friends, he had given every possible confusing answer to the rather murky questions with which he'd initially been assailed.
Was Candidate Trump prepared to accept information, assistance or dirt from foreign governments, adversaries or persons? Trump's answers to these thoughtful questions were, in order, yes, no, maybe and no one would ever try such a thing, Trump loves the country so much. But so it goes when the press corps kills time pretending to study a question.
As a nation, what were we hoping to outlaw or avoid as we seemed to examine this question? This was never made clear. That said, the analysts cheered when Larry Noble explained the whole thing to Pamela Brown on CNN last Friday afternoon.
Noble is a former member of the FEC. The toothless ersatz federal board is down to only four members now, but Noble was there in the good old days, when the agency managed to do nothing at all with a full contingent of six.
What sort of help can a campaign receive from a foreign person, agent or country? Trump had just made a silly statement, saying no foreigner would ever approach him because he loves the USA so much.
Brown asked Noble to comment on that. In the course of his reply, Noble laid down his basic marker:
BROWN (6/14/19): And I want to get your take on that, Larry, this idea that because you're a patriot, a foreign country, or an adversary, wouldn't come to you with dirt.According to Noble, we know that Russia did approach Trump's 2016 campaign. He was referring to Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russkie lawyer who approached the campaign with information so utterly useless that the Mueller team thought it didn't reach the level of valuation which might trigger a criminal charge.
NOBLE: Again, that there's just no reason to think that's true. And in this particular situation, we know that Russia already came to his campaign. In 2016 they came, the campaign listened.
The only reason the campaign didn't get into further trouble was because the information they offered—they [the Mueller team] decided wasn't really worth very much—and I guess, the value issue.
Opposition research is very valuable. Campaigns spend a lot of money on it. And so, it is something you can value. The law says you cannot accept anything of value from a foreign national.
Having said that, let us also say this—as best we can tell, the Mueller team never concluded that Veselnitskaya was acting as a Russian "agent." Noble seemed to be stating a fact not in evidence, something which is rather common when pundits who are anti-Trump discuss the Mueller report.
That said, Mueller's team did explicitly note that Veselnitskaya was a "foreign national." On that basis, it seems they searched for ways to charge someone with a crime, something prosecutors seem to like to do.
Back to Noble! He had now set down his basic marker. "The law says you cannot accept anything of value from a foreign national," he had told CNN's Brown.
That said, is information a "thing of value" under federal law? In theory, could Trumpkins have been charged with a crime for accepting accurate information from Veselnitskaya, even if she wasn't working for Vladimir Putin himself?
Brown asked Noble about Christopher Steele, a foreign national who'd been collecting information from other foreign nationals, then funneling it through to the Clinton campaign.
Why didn't that involve criminal conduct, Brown sensibly asked. When we heard Noble's full reply, we decided to enjoy a good laugh:
BROWN (continuing directly): Okay, so let me ask you this. Because the other side would say, "Well, what about this idea of the dossier?" The Democrats, you know, paid for a dossier, which was compiled by a foreign national, Christopher Steele. Again, he was a former spy with an ally, but what's the difference there?That was the ex-commissioner's tale.
NOBLE: The law does not prohibit a foreign national getting paid by your campaign and doing work for your campaign. You can hire foreign nationals. You can hire a company that employs foreign nationals and as long as you pay them, that's fine.
BROWN: All right. I want to turn to Josh on Kellyanne Conway...
At any rate, there you have it! The Clinton campaign paid for the Steele dossier. They paid Steele to gather information, so that was A-OK.
It was OK to take information from Steele because Steele was getting paid. If Steele had simply assembled the information out of his global civic concern, then sent it to the campaign for free, that could have been a crime on the part of the Clintonistas.
Go ahead—ask yourself. Does that really seem to make sense?
We agree that it was perfectly OK for the Clinton campaign, or its surrogates, to pay Steele to gather tons of "dirt" and then to pass it along. We see nothing wrong with that—with gathering information.
But good God! If Steele had assembled the information on his own, then simply passed it along, it would have been a crime to accept it because he had done it for free?
In our view, this is how silly discussion can get when cable channels have twenty-four hours to fill. And remember—Noble isn't your average cable news shlub. He's a former member of the FEC!
Veselnitskaya should have been paid, Noble almost seemed to have said. If her information had been significant, it could have been a crime to take it for free. But if the Trumps had slipped her a couple of bills, the whole thing would have been fine!
That isn't exactly what Noble said, but what the heck did he say? If Steele had passed along accurate information for free, it would have been a federal crime for the Clinton campaign to take it?
Information isn't cash, and it isn't a fleet of jets. In theory, we want to get information, assuming it hasn't been stolen. Then the national press gets involved—and the national press corps runs on script. They're inclined to flee from information, and they always have been.
Can candidates accept information from a foreign person—perhaps from a well-placed Norwegian? In the excitement of the past week, we don't think we ever saw a coherent discussion of this basic question.
We don't think we ever saw one such discussion. But then, what else is new?