Whistleblower, blow thy whistle

A cinematic treatment of the Whistleblower’s Complaint.

The Scene: Morning of July 25, situation room

Picture this, if you will: It is the morning of July 25. The US President is in the Situation Room speaking on the phone to the new leader of an allied nation. All is routine: a dozen staffers listen in. Transcripts will automatically be produced. That conversation will be treated as “policy” and distributed to the Cabinet and others. None of them suspect anything amiss. The conversation begins with pleasantries.

The allied nation is Ukraine. Volodomyr Zelenskyy has become President a scant two months prior. He used to be a comedian who played a President on TV. He got elected because he promised to drain the swamp of corruption.

Volodomyr Zelenskyy (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The US President often speaks like a mob boss. He used to be a reality show star who played a successful CEO on TV. He hit upon the slogan “drain the swamp” by accident and milked it to become the President of the United States.

The call begins routinely. Congratulations and flattery are exchanged. The supplicant—Zelenskyy—is more flattering than congratulatory, since he is anticipating the sale of Javelin missiles and the release of an aid package of over $400 million. The man who holds the cards is Trump, and he is more congratulatory than flattering.

As the conversation proceeds, the staffers listening in (again, about a dozen) get increasingly uncomfortable. The President brings up seemingly random topics. He skewers his old enemy, Mueller, lately defused, by panning his performance on TV the day prior. He throws out “Crowdstrike” and “DNC servers”, which sounds for all the world like he is scratching off the scabs of the Russia investigation. He throws out the names of his private lawyer/fixer Rudy Giuliani, and his in-government lawyer/fixer AG Bill Barr (neither of whom have any role in matters of State), and demands that Zelenskyy work with them in opening an investigation into his political rival Biden’s son. Trump expresses a concern that Zelenskyy is surrounding himself with “those same people,” on which, more later.

I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Trump says, seeming to hold back the funds and missiles in return for—yes, it must be said—a personal favor for the President. He appears to be strong-arming the Ukrainian leader into joining a latter-day CREEP, the committee to re-elect the President.

Zelenskyy takes refuge in bland platitudes. Promising everything good in general and nothing that Trump wants in particular. Well, he does intimate that he is, as is required, spending money at Trump properties, and that yes, he will put out a call to Rudy Giuliani, but that is as is now routine. The call ends cordially.

That evening, Zelenskyy signals that he has understood Trump’s message. The elliptical statement put out by Ukraine says that they will indeed be able to “complete the investigation of corruption cases that have held back cooperation between Ukraine and the United States.”

A couple weeks later, the oblique reference to “Crowdstrike” is resolved by Trump himself: “I think Zelenskyy is going to work with Putin,” he says to reporters, “and he will be invited to the White House.” He is a reasonable guy, the President adds. So this clarifies: ‘working with Putin’ along with ‘DNC servers’ and ‘Crowdstrike’ means only one thing—ginning up fake evidence that Russia, after all, didn’t hack into the 2016 US elections.

It is after the call that alarm spreads. Probably several laws were broken in that call, perhaps even that singular Presidential one: abuse of office. No one is certain; call transcripts go out as usual to the selected State Dept and Intelligence staffers to inform policy. But White House Lawyers swoop in after the fact. In a perversion of their role, which is meant to protect the office of the Presidency, they turn to protecting this one singular President from the consequences of his law-breaking. In turn, they break a few of their own. The transcript is put under lockdown, in codeword secure servers that are reserved for covert action, akin to the Bin Laden raid. Other summaries, memos or notes are also snatched.

One of the Intelligence officials to receive the transcript is later to be known as: “the Whistleblower”, or if you prefer, following Josh Marshall, “Deep Whistle“. Deep Whistle does not work alone. Half a dozen other staffers rat out the boss and help Deep compile a well-structured complaint full of footnotes and enclosures. It is a tale of off-the-books foreign policy and extortion of a foreign leader for election interference. A couple weeks after the phone call, the complaint is made.

Deep attempts to blow the whistle twice. Both times, the complaint goes up to the very top of the agency, then sideways, into AG Barr and Trump’s domain, where it is then buried. But the final time, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson, blows the whistle about the existence of the whistleblower, in a sort of relay race, into Congress’s ears. A couple weeks later, more than a month after the whistle is blown, it is finally heard.

Flashback to May: arm-twisting Zelenskyy:

By the time of the July 25 call, Zelenskyy and Trump had already had a months-long relationship. Zelenskyy had been facing increasing pressure from Trump to play ball. White House staffers were completely in the dark because the pressure had been exerted through Trump’s out-of-government fixer, Rudy Giuliani (it now appears that DC shitbird lawyer propagandist couple Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing were involved as well).

As soon as Zelenskyy became Ukraine’s new leader, Giuliani made plans to visit in person and ask Zelenskyy to intervene in the 2020 election. For every good reason in the world—among which, that Giuliani has no official United States role—Zelenskyy refused to entertain him.

The pressure ratcheted up. Vice President Pence was made to cancel his appearance at the inaugural. The hundreds of millions in aid passed by Congerss was held back, with no explanation given to anyone even within the administration, except that the President said so. Giuliani tweeted darkly that Zelenskyy was “still silent” on the desired investigation into Biden. All contact between Ukraine and US leaders was forbidden until Trump determined how Zelenskyy “chose to act”.

By U.S. Department of State – Marie L. Yovanovitch Ambassador, Public Domain

The fledgling Zelenskyy government understood from this what they could: that any future support from the United States depended on them coughing up 2020 election help and a cover story for Russia. They also understood that the United States, as it were, was acting as two separate entities. There was the official United States, represented by Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and State Dept official Kurt Volker. And there was President Trump, acting through Rudy Giuliani and AG Bill Barr.

Their messages were not unified.

The US State Dept’s message was much in line with what US policy had always been: shore up defenses against Russia, orient yourselves towards the West, fight corruption internally.

The Trump/Giuliani/Barr cabal had an opposite message: work with Putin, gin up evidence against Biden, gin up evidence against those who found the black ledger that listed illicit payments to Manafort, and create doubt that Russia hacked the 2016 US elections: despite all of IC and Mueller’s 25 indictments saying the opposite. Trump wanted Zelenskyy to do what he himself had done in Helsinki: capitulate to Putin wholly and entirely.

Flashback to March: Conveyor belt of Bullshit

The interview looks official. The Prosecutor General of Ukraine in the right panel, with the Ukrainian flag behind him, looks sober and speaks calmly. His name is Yuriy Lutsenko. The man in the left panel, heavy set with a receding hairline, wears a suit and asks probing questions.

The two are half a world apart—in Ukraine, and in the US—brought together over Skype. A voiceover translates Lutsenko’s words into English. All signs point to a substantive interview relating to the US’s relationship with Ukraine.

John Solomon/Yuriy Lutsenko (screenshot)

The only problem? The entire thing is bullshit. The Prosecutor General Lutsenko throws out wild accusations that are all later shown to be lies. Worse than lies—they are shown to turn reality on its head. He claims the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, prevented him from prosecuting crime: when in reality, she had brought pressure to bear on him to root out corruption. He claims that the people who exposed illicit payments to Manafort in the infamous “black ledger” were actually making it up for corrupt reasons of their own. He claims that Biden had a prosecutor removed to prevent him from investigating the energy company his son was on the board of—but the prosecutor in question, Shokin, was actually not investigating enough.

Lutsenko—a man who became Prosecutor General without a law degree, or any special expertise—is thoroughly distrusted by anti-corruption activists in his country. He has axes of his own to grind, and has clearly crafted a set of claims that he feels will help him find favor with the Trump administration.

The man on the left, John Solomon of the Hill, is a practiced conveyor of bullshit. From his perch at the Hill publication, he has pumped out fake news story after fake news story: all of which come with a polished enough veneer of reporting to seem plausible, and need serious treatment to debunk, as other outlets have done over and over. But, as with his prior conspiracy theories, this one speeds along on the conveyor belt of bullshit: from John Solomon, to Chuck Ross of the Daily Caller, to Hannity on Fox, Gateway Pundit and other right-wing outlets, to countless Facebook and Twitter feeds, to Trump’s Twitter.

It is this fake narrative, willed into being by John Solomon, attested to by Lutsenko, that is used later to turn the screws on Zelenskyy. He must surround himself with the “right people,” Trump says, by which is meant the people who have fed lies to John Solomon and Rudy Giuliani or are willing to do so. The “wrong people” are those like the US Ambassador Yovanovitch, and the people who discovered the black ledger of payments to Manafort, who refuse to join Trump’s CREEP.

By the time Lutsenko himself disavows his narrative, and by the time John Solomon leaves the Hill amid complaints by co-workers, the set of lies told by Lutsenko have achieved a life of their own, driving foreign policy between the US President and the new leader of Ukraine. It has led to the removal of the US Ambassador to Ukraine, and to the opening of an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats.

A few months later, Lutsenko disavows his lies completely in the Russian language press. He claims to have felt pressured by Giuliani to open an investigation into Biden’s doings in Ukraine even though no laws were broken.

So, this is what we can conclude: sitting behind the scenes of the conveyor belt of bullshit—loading items on it, as it were—is the bulge-eyed grinning face of Rudy Giuliani.

Flashback to 2018: Globe-trotting Fixers

Fruman and Parnas with Giuliani and Trump (source: OCCRP.ORG; credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP)

The shadow foreign policy efforts of Rudy Giuliani bore fruit in the John Solomon interviews, but had been ongoing for a while. In fact, he was practically running a shadow State Department, with two Florida businessmen named Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman acting as shadow diplomats.

Their names may be unfamiliar, but their profile should be a familiar one: fraudster “businessmen” with energy interests in Eastern Europe, plenty of dodgy ex-Soviet connections, immersed in the dodgy business world of New York and Florida. Each month, it seems, we find a new character enmeshed in the Trump-Russia nexus with exactly the same profile.

Rudy and his “diplomats” led a whirlwind of shadow diplomacy. As the OCCRP/Buzzfeed investigation quoted by Deep Whistle reveals, they held meetings with top people in Ukraine across five countries; introduced Rudy to three disgruntled Ukrainian prosecutors; donated half a million dollars to Republican coffers; dined with Trump himself; breakfasted with Don Trump Jr; hobnobbed with insiders at the Trump International Hotel in DC; lobbied to have the US Ambassador to Ukraine fired—and succeeded; and spun up a number of conspiracy theories with the goal of digging up dirt on Biden and his son.

These were the theories that later showed up on John Solomon’s conveyor belt of bullshit—and still later, on Trump’s call with Zelenskyy.

Shadow diplomats Parnas and Fruman were certainly not representing the interests of the United States on their globetrotting adventures. Rather, it was the interests of the firm they own: Global Energy Producers LLC, that is in the business of selling LNG to Ukraine. Rudy Giuliani has often claimed that he works for Trump pro bono; he was able to do so because Global Energy Producers are his actual clients. Congratulations, America: your foreign policy was being run for the benefit of two hucksters who run a company formed just months ago, and can’t even put together a website.

Back to the Present

Months later it was revealed that the US State Dept had essentially become the wholly owned subsidiary of the Shadow State Dept run by Rudy Giuliani, the President’s unpaid lawyer/fixer. A manila envelope of the Collected Works of Parnas and Fruman showed up at the Congressional hearing of the State Dept IG: this envelope was given to the US State Dept as matters to “investigate”. It contained documents detailing the conspiracy theories spun up by Parnas and Fruman, separated into sections by folders marked with Trump International Hotel logos.

As if that weren’t absurd enough, someone had taken a great deal of trouble to mark the envelopes with “White House” return addresses in elaborate calligraphy. It was almost as if a Shadow White House had hijacked the real White House and held it hostage; and was sending missives in its place.

The envelope containing conspiracy theories that was sent to the State Dept (source: NYT)

Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.

Some useful links:

Volodomyr ZelenskyyUkrainianUkraine’s 6th President
Andriy YermakUkrainianZelenskyy’s personal friend and chief aide; Rudy Giuliani’s chief negotiator
Serhiy LeshchenkoUkrainianJournalist and politician; dug up Manafort’s black ledger that contained illicit payments; became enemy #1 for Manafort/Trump/Giuliani
Viktor ShokinUkainianFormer Prosecutor General; known to be corrupt; US/Western governments wanted removed; Biden at forefront of that effort
Yuriy LutsenkoUkrainianFormer Prosecutor General; was interviewed by John Solomon; lied about Biden and Ambassador Yovanovitch, later repudiated those lies
Marie YovanovitchAmericanFormer US Ambassador to Ukraine. She held the line against the Shadow Foreign Policy shakedown by Giuliani; thus was removed from her post
Kurt VolkerAmericanState Dept special envoy to Ukraine. Attempted to help Zelenskyy navigate Trump’s demands. Later resigned and provided all texts to Congress
Gordon SondlandAmericanUS Ambassador to EU. Major Trump donor. Represented Trump’s viewpoint in negotiations with Zelenskyy
John SolomonAmericanRight-wing conspiracy theorist; used to be at The Hill; spread debunked conspiracies about Uranium One
Lev Parnas and Igor Frumanex-Soviet, Amercian“Energy” businessmen who hired Giuliani and spent months digging up dirt against Biden in Ukraine and other countries

Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.

(Featured image credit: Craig Whitehead/Unsplash)

Twelve Angry Trump Voters

A black-and-white film from 1957 has a strange resonance with contemporary Trumpist America

The 1957 Sidney Lumet classic Twelve Angry Men is a fable about how control of a small tribe shifts from one faction to another.

The “tribe” is actually a jury of twelve men, assembled to rule on the question of guilt of a teenager. But quite apart from the arguments, one can see how one faction (the “Not Guilty” one) starts off powerless, and through moral suasion, ends up snatching the majority from the “Guilty” faction. At the end of the film, the “Guilty” faction ends up where the “Not Guilty” faction had begun: composed of just one man, eyes of the crowd on him, asking him to explain himself.

Now I may be obsessive and I may be a fool—after all, this film was made in 1957—but in it I saw an allegory for contemporary Trumpist America. I saw how xenophobic and authoritarian viewpoints can score early victories and appear invincible. I saw how the smallest crack in that facade can permit moral arguments through. I saw how opening of that smallest crack can find adherents and grow into a movement.

Now come the spoilers.

A midnight murder has been committed in the slums of New York city. An old man is dead and his eighteen-year-old delinquent son is accused of the crime. The case rests on two witnesses: a downstairs neighbor—a man recovering from a stroke—who heard the body thump down on the floor and saw the boy running down the stairs. And a woman in an apartment across the tracks who saw the stabbing through the cars of a rushing train.

Twelve jurors are asked to come up with a unanimous verdict of either guilty or not. A guilty verdict will certainly send the boy to the electric chair. The twelve men are locked into a sweltering room, with a non-functional fan, in a hurry to get home or to a game or just out of the heat. The case appears to be slam-dunk. Two people swore on the stand that they saw the boy, either in the process of killing or right after. His alibi of having been at a movie at the time of the murder appears flimsy, as he can’t remember the name of the feature or who was in it.

The Ringleaders

All twelve jurors seem convinced that the boy is most likely the one who did it.

All twelve—and this is important—including Henry Fonda (Juror No. 8); however, only Fonda thinks they owe it to the boy to at least discuss the case, and unearth any doubts anyone might have about his guilt, however small.

Henry Fonda as Juror No. 8

This makes Juror No. 8 very unpopular. A conscience is an uncomfortable thing to have in the heat. The rest of them were hoping to all vote “Guilty” and get out of there double-fast.

Ed Begley (Juror No. 10) and Lee J Cobb (Juror No. 3) emerge as early leaders of the “Guilty” faction. In them, I saw reflections of Trump and the cult that surrounds him.

Ed Begley as Juror No. 10

Ed Begley plays a gray-haired garage owner, an Archie Bunker-style casual bigot. He is convinced the accused boy is lying, based simply on the fact that he is from the slums. “I know the type,” he says, “people like that lie all the time.”

Lee J Cobb is impatient with the niceties that the rule-of-law imposes on people like himself, who habitually sit in juries in judgment over others. “If it were up to me, I’d slap those tough kids down before they started any trouble.” In the words of Fonda, he is a “self-appointed public executioner.”

He claims to heavily rely on “facts” to come to his “Guilty” verdict. “Now here are the facts,” he says, counting them on his hand, reciting the prosecution’s case. But after only about three items, he pounces to the guilt. “The boy is guilty! Now that’s a fact!”

Lee J Cobb as Juror No. 3

It’s clear that he seethes with personal resentment against young men who have turned, ungratefully, against their fathers. This slum-dwelling boy had had a fight with his father and threatened to kill him hours before the killing took place. His own son, by his own telling, tired of his father’s constant berating, has not been heard from in two years. Personal injury, resentment, bitterness, all gather into a “Guilty” verdict in his mind, held on to with great vehemence. He doesn’t just want to make sure that the guilty do not go unpunished—rather, as he says, he wants to put this boy in the chair “where he belongs”.

Similarities with Trump

In too many instances to mention, these two Jurors combined essentially form Trump’s personality. There was the time he said that he didn’t want immigrants from shithole countries. The time he, much like Lee J Cobb, condemned the Central Park Five as guilty of rape despite sketchy evidence (and it turned out that they were innocent). There are the many rallies where he waxes eloquent about protesters being carried out in stretchers and promises to pay the legal fees of his supporters if they beat a protester up. There’s the demogoguery about families from across the border as being rapists, murderers, and gang-members, because he “knows the type”.

There’s the fact that his personal resentments, for example towards Obama, appear to have shaped his policies when it comes to killing the Iran Deal (JCPOA) or leaving the Paris Accord against climate change, rather than some more cold-blooded analysis.

Sadly, much like Ed Begley and Lee J Cobb in the film, he is also a fomenter and a leader. Most other Jurors follow the lead of these two to reach an easy “Guilty” verdict. These viewpoints, proclaimed loudly and and with confidence, come through as eminently obvious. Of course the slum-dwelling boy killed his belligerent father! They’re all like that, what more need be said?

Cut to real-life: Trump’s easy condemnation of immigrants and other disadvantaged have actually led to a large uptick in hate crimes and racial violence as tracked by numerous hate watch groups.

Trump Supporter Archetype

Somehow, this film from 1957 (based on a play from 1954) uncannily represents some other archetypes that Trump’s supporters fall into.

Henry Fonda implores the group to stay in the room and debate the case for at least an hour, notwithstanding the heat, pleading that it isn’t easy for him to send the boy to his death in just five minutes. Jack Warden (Juror No. 7), a Yankees fan impatient to get to a game, turns to him testily at this implied rebuke: “so what if it takes me only five minutes to decide he’s guilty? Who says it was easy for me?”

Jack Warden as Juror No. 7

Isn’t this testiness at an implied moral rebuke what the entire rebellion against being “politically correct” is about? And isn’t the permission to be politically incorrect in large part what Trump’s popularity is about? “Yes, you can decide the boy’s guilt in five minutes,” Trump is saying to his followers, in a certain sense. “Look at him, look at what he is. Of course he’s guilty!” No wonder they adore him.

In fact this Juror, played by Jack Warden, is masterfully portrayed as someone with a sort of moral blindness. In contemporary terms, he might decry Fonda’s stance as political correctness; in the film, he directly asks him, “what are you getting out of it? Did someone bonk you on the head?”

That Fonda might take this stand out of ethics simply does not occur to him.

Other Jurors

The “Guilty” faction runs the gamut. Like many Trump voters, they came to this verdict in good faith. One by one, they see the wisdom in the “Not Guilty” platform and shift their allegiance.

Jack Klugman as Juror No. 5

Jack Klugman (Juror No. 5) was raised in the same sort of slums as the accused. Although he is convinced of the boy’s guilt, he is not comfortable with the aspersions cast on slum-dwellers by the others on his team. Ed Begley, the casual bigot, is the most egregious, regularly using the language of infestation, asserting that kids raised in slums “crawl” out of there and are “trash”. When Klugman (Juror No. 5) finally switches his vote to “Not Guilty”, it isn’t clear whether it is out of conviction, or whether he was driven out by the constant othering he faced on his side.

This reminded me of a recent story in the news: the man who Trump called “my African American“, a Trump supporter, leaving the party because, in his words, he finds that Trump has a “white superiority complex”. Despite being initially convinced of Trump’s platform, he had begun to feel like an outsider who was merely accepted in the circle as a political pawn.

The anti-social belligerence of the ringleaders (Ed Begley and Lee J Cobb) drives away some of their other teammates as well, while Fonda’s calm demeanor wins their respect. An older Juror is the first to cross over to the “Not Guilty” side explicitly in order to give this courageous man his support. An immigrant who respects the American justice system more than some Americans in the room is inspired by Fonda to work through a doubt he has about the prosecution’s case on the notepaper in front of him, and he stands up ceremoniously to present it. He, too, faces othering on his side. “How do you like that,” says Jack Warden (Juror No. 7), “they run for their lives and come over here and then tell us how to run the show, huh?”

A coldly rational stock broker, E. G. Marshall (Juror No. 4) has been convinced by the logic of the prosecution. Although he finds himself on the same side as the bigoted Ed Begley and the belligerent Lee J Cobb, it is clear that he disdains them. While he is not given to emotional outbursts, he does appear to agree with Lee J Cobb that the “Not Guilty” faction is allowing their bleeding-heart sympathy for slum-dwellers to make them believe in fairy-tales and blind them to logic and facts.

E. G. Marshall (Juror No. 4)

But he possesses one thing that they lack: integrity.

When the first cracks of doubt appear in his certainty, that’s the first time in the film that he starts to sweat. But like many Never-Trump Republicans—I’m thinking of some in particular, like David Frum and Max Boot—when the break with the “Guilty” faction comes, it is decisive.

The feckless

It is impossible to watch a film like this dispassionately. Every sentence and expression is placed in order to inflame one’s moral instincts. The casual bigots, the belligerents, shouters and the rabble-rousers are easy to abhor. The narrative practically forces you to look in their direction.

But whether intended by the filmmakers or not, the one person who aroused most of my ire was neither Ed Begley (the casual bigot), nor Lee J Cobb (the belligerent sadist), nor Jack Warden (the morally blind Yankees fan)—it was Robert Webber (Juror No. 12), an ad executive who seems incapable of treating his task with the seriousness it deserves. As the Sobchak character says in The Big Lebowski about nihilists: “I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos“. That’s how the Juror No. 12 is portrayed: as a nihilist, focused on the entertainment value of the proceedings above all else.

Robert Webber as Juror No. 12

He expresses his relief that since they were given a murder trial, not assault or burglary, there were no “dead spots” during the proceedings. At another time he is found to be playing tic-tac-toe with Lee J Cobb while others are deliberating. When directly asked about what he thinks about the arguments, he cannot muster up anything beyond a shrug.

The entire time, his pulse is on one thing—where the power dynamic lies. In fact, he is supremely sensitive to the shifting tides of conventional wisdom. When he switches his vote to “Not Guilty”, it clear he does so because he feels like this is the winning side now. Then he senses some shakiness in the “Not Guilty” faction and switches his vote back. This is a man who loves winners and is simply unable to process the rightness or wrongness of arguments.

There will always be bigots and there will always be despots. But I find that we are in our current Trumpist predicament because some in the media who are supposed to inform us lost sight of the rightness and wrongness of arguments, and focused entirely on who’s up, who’s down. Juror No. 12’s, all of them, they are masters of conventional wisdom. They report on whose arguments are winning the day, not on what those arguments mean. Looking at you, Juror No. 12 Mark Halperin. Looking at you, Juror No. 12 Chuck Todd. And you, the dumbest pundit in America, the man who plays tic-tac-toe while governments are flailing, Juror No. 12 Chris Cillizza.

(Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Post.)

Update 10/5/19: I was interviewed on Slate’s podcast Real Trumpcast about this article: check it out!