Ethics Hero: George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley

I almost included this in yesterday’s ethics warm-up, but realized that the point was too important not to have the focus of an entire post.

During the Post 2016 Election Ethics Train Wreck that threatens the stability of the United States and its future as a functioning democracy,  Prof. Turley has been one of the select few to meet the qualifications laid out by Rudyard Kipling in my late father’s favorite poem “If.” He has managed to keep his head while all about him, especially in academia, his realm, but also most professionals, have been losing theirs, mostly in response to crushing peer pressure, unsupported conventional wisdom, and partisan bias.

It’s remarkable how much easier it is to analyze complex problems accurately when one can maintain sufficient objectivity and remove, and can overcome bias and resist the lure of rationalizations. In The Hill, Turley demonstrates the benefits of his integrity with a sharp and accurate post—it happens to be consistent with my own conclusions of more than a year’s duration, but I don’t have to hang out in a faculty lounge—explaining the dynamics of the unprecedented efforts by the FBI and the Justice Department to undermine the Trump Presidency before it even began.

Turley’s article begins by mentioning  the New York Times “bombshell” about the FBI launching an investigation of whether the President of the United States was a Russian asset…

However, the real benefit of the investigative story may not be the original suspicion, but rather how it could explain the course that both sides have taken into our current quagmire. What if there were no collusion or conspiracy but simple cognitive bias on both sides, where the actions of one seemed to confirm precisely the suspicions of the other?

Let me focus the professor’s words here. There are all kinds of cognitive bias, and several may be at work. However, the main one is clearly confirmation bias, the human tendency to interpret information in ways that confirm what we believe already.

There are now two possibilities. The first of those is that Trump really was some “Manchurian candidate” placed in the Oval Office by Russia and controlled from afar by Vladimir Putin. Many are unlikely to ever accept any other possibility, though the New York Times story does not suggest that this counterintelligence operation found any basis for the original allegation….

Professor Turley often irritates me by his habitual reluctance to be emphatic, so allow me. This has never been a genuine “possibility,” although, as we often hear, anything is possible. The traitor/monster/Rissian tool version of Trump became a confirmation bias mandate for those who didn’t initially have the ability to see what a wretched, incompetent Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was,  and then refused to accept the reality—still refuse, in fact—that she lost, deserved to lose, and had nobody to blame but herself. Thus was devised, in part with Clinton’s encouragement and assistance, the absurd conspiracy theory. It would be unthinkable, outside the realm of fiction, for anyone who rose to the U.S. Presidency to conspire with a foreign power to win an election, but Democrats and the news media managed to “otherize” Trump in their own minds and the minds of anyone who trusts them. First he won, so something must have been fishy. Second, he was an international  businessman, not a career politician, so he naturally had contacts with Russian interests. Finally, he was a bad guy, not merely because all Republicans and conservatives are bad (though Trump is neither, but never mind), but because he doesn’t try to hide his flaws like typical politicians, and to some extent revels in them.  The sum of this led, and leads, Trump foes to leap to a historically and logically absurd conclusion.

Turley continues,

We have a clear picture of what the two sides saw at the start of the Trump administration. At the FBI, investigators, including then director James Comey, actively considered the unthinkable possibility that the president was controlled by Russia. [Me interjecting: Turley says “unthinkable” because it shouldn’t have been thought, but uses the word so casually that this might not register.] At the White House, Trump believed that his associates and campaign had been placed under investigation by federal officials with close ties to Democratic figures. What happened next could be a lesson in cognitive bias, and it could indeed explain a lot.

For the “resistance” side, Turley says,

At the start of the Trump administration, the FBI has a dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and opposition research firm Fusion GPS, alleging a myriad of suspicious financial and personal connections between Trump and Russia. It also had an investigation into the Russia connections of Trump adviser Carter Page. There was Trump encouraging Russia to locate the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton and some evidence of Russia internet trolling and hacking operations. There also was the curious refusal of Trump to criticize Russia, an anomaly within Republican politics….

No charges were ever brought against Page, who appears to have been pursuing business interests in Russia. Moreover, investigative journalist Michael Isikoff, who broke the dossier story, admitted recently, “When you actually get into the details of the Steele dossier, the specific allegations, we have not seen the evidence to support them, and, in fact, there is good grounds to think that some of the more sensational allegations will never be proven and are likely false.” Even the New York Times bombshell now reports that “no evidence has emerged publicly that Trump was “secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.”

However, the FBI back then did not know all of that. From the perspective of the counterintelligence operation, every one of those moves confirmed the concern that Trump may have been working for Russian interests. They understandably began an investigation into whether Trump was acting not erratically but by design to conceal his Russian influence.

After “unthinkable” Turley now says it was “understandable.” He’s an ethics hero, but he’s a weenie. Barack Obama knew of the Russian efforts to inject chaos into the election, and did nothing. Why wasn’t it “thinkable” to ask whether he was in cahoots with Putin, whom he had, among other indulgences, allowed to waltz into the Crimea? The suspicion was only “thinkable” because there was a hard, negative bias against Donald Trump based on partisanship and emotion. Obama was a normal President, and no normal President would ever do such a thing. Only a an abnormal President would consider such treachery. The “resistance,” as well as the FBI investigation, and the news media reporting on it, were all based on a presumption of guilt

Prof. Turley  focuses on how thinks looked through the President’s eyes.

Now go back to the same period after the inauguration. Trump had just won an unwinnable election against the establishment. He had expected much of the government to be hostile to his administration. He soon learned that the FBI secretly investigated some of his aides. Then the dossier story hit. The Clinton campaign first denied funding the dossier but later admitted that it funded the effort at a considerable expense, with the money hidden as legal costs by its lawyer and his firm. From the perspective of Trump, it all fit pattern of a deep state conspiracy of Clinton operatives and establishment officials. [Me interjecting: not only from Trump’s perspective!] Soon, Trump witnessed events that confirmed his suspicions. Key FBI officials like Andrew McCabe had Democratic connections and his wife, Jill McCabe, received roughly $700,000 from a close Clinton ally and the Virginia Democratic Party in her campaign for the state legislature. Then emails surfaced, showing sentiments of clear bias against Trump from relevant figures like McCabe and lead FBI investigator Peter Strzok, including discussion of “insurance policies” against his election and resistance against his administration. Trump also learned that the dossier was given to the FBI by the wife of Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, who worked closely with former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Nellie Ohr was employed by Fusion GPS to assist in the cultivation of opposition research on Trump. Everything that Trump was seeing confirmed the theory of a conspiracy of Democratic operatives and deep state figures against his administration.

Turley’s conclusion, as usual framed in scholarly equivocation but correct nonetheless:

The result is two separate narratives that fed off the actions of each other. There likely was bias in the initial assumptions, with a willingness at the FBI to believe Trump would be a tool of the Russians, and a willingness by Trump to believe the FBI would be a tool of the Clintons. Every move and countermove confirmed each bias. Trump continued to denounce what he saw as a conspiracy. The FBI continued to investigate his obstructive attitude. One side saw a witch hunt where the other saw a mole hunt. Of course, neither side can accept at this point that they may have been wrong about the other side. In economics that is called path dependence. So much has been built on the Republican and Democratic sides on these original assumptions that it is impossible to now deconstruct from those narratives. In other words, there may have been no Russian mole and no deep state conspiracy. Moreover, the motivations may not have been to obstruct either the Trump administration or the Russia investigation. Instead, this could all prove to be the greatest, most costly example of cognitive bias in history, and now no one in this story wants to admit it.

Now read the comments to the article, the vast majority of which bear out Turley’s analysis while condemning him for it.  It’s blatant confirmation bias after confirmation bias.


31 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley

    • The funniest (not “haha” funny) thing about it all is that when the smoke clears, other than the hacking and exposing of actual corruption in the DNC, all “the Russians” really did was circulate a few thousand crappy Facebook memes, most of which weren’t even about the election. The memes couldn’t have possibly have swayed one single vote, but the Russians got more bang for their bucks than they could possibly have dreamed thanks to the Democrat cabal being so desperate for an alternative storyline to explain Hillary’s failure.

      • other than the hacking

        Do you have a source for this? I have yet to see any evidence that the Russians hacked anything. I have seen some scant evidence that they may have been involved in buying some internet ads on issues matters (possibly/probably to sew discord), but buying ads is not “hacking”.

        I have seen lots of accusations, and lots of claims that Russia hacked the DNC to get their emails. I have seen no evidence to back this up, and any evidence I have seen on this assertion seems to indicate that the info was leaked not hacked. If it was hacked, NSA would have evidence of this — full stop. This is a case of absence of evidence does show evidence of absence. NSA has all this communication, and would certainly have saved anything related to this — they knew about the hack/leak within months, well within the time-frames that they save metadata that would have shown the communication.

  1. It would be unthinkable, outside the realm of fiction, for anyone who rose to the U.S. Presidency to conspire with a foreign power to win an election…


    I know the memo is contested, but it boils down to the former Senator Tunney saying “I would never do that”. It could have been a fake KGB memo, or it could have been real. This is a lot more evidence than they have against Trump.

    • The closest is Nixon’s now documented efforts to send a message to China through an emissary that there would be better pace terms from his administration if they didn’t make a deal with LBJ. That was impeachable.

      • Interesting; I was talking to someone this weekend about this Trump Russia thing and that exact thing came up in the conversation. It’s pretty obvious that Nixon believe the ends justified the means.

  2. Yes, of course. Confirmation bias is all around us. But just because just because you Jack for instance generally seize only on negatives about Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren to support your view that they are ‘bad’ is no evidence that they aren’t. It just demonstrates that you, like the rest of us, are biased.

    I readily acknowledge how hard it is to address my bias. When all in the jousting ring seem so certain of their ‘rightness’ it seems unreasonably generous to concede in any respect that my opponent might be right and I might be wrong.

    At best we generally act as advocates of our preconceived positions and bash our heads against those who hold differently. The winner is the last one left standing. Most of the time of course we seek the company of those who can be relied to share at least some of our prejudices.

    Even after conceding bias, we should not too easily be bullied out of it. That bias came from somewhere and it is not necessarily mistaken. The best we can do is to try to understand its roots.

    • Huh? Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren are untrustworthy, and objectively so. My business is trust. I don’t “seize” on negatives. Rejecting thgem as worthy of leadership responsibility is simple logic ad civic awareness. Refusing to see disqualifications where they are are obvious is what requires bias.

      You couldn’t have picked two worse examples to argue your point.

      • Jack, I think that Andrew’s point wasn’t conveyed clearly. He was pointing out that the fact that we have biases (in this case against Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren), does not mean that the person against whom we are biased is actually a good person.

        • Then his comment makes no sense. I have biases against bad people, but that not a bias; it’s self-defense. Bias is a problem when it causes one to make bad decisions, not the right ones.

          • To elaborate a bit more: If I see and hear Hillary lie to my face and the media’s about her emails, and send out a horde of surrogates to repeat her lies, and combine that with her perfidy and complicity regarding her husband’s conduct, I conclude, correctly, that she is a ruthless fraud, and not worthy of power. ANYONE should conclude that. Now I take all of her actions and words in that context. The latter is a bias, but a necessary one. “Fool me once…”

            • Well quite a considerable number of your compatriots don’t (conclude that) which must leave you with a puzzle as to ‘why’?

              Of course a perfectly rational answer might be that they are all stupid, which must be a particularly frustrating conclusion for an educator.

              I prefer the view that you and they simply disagree, largely because you and they have different knowledge and experiences (ie. different bias).

              You and Turley seek to explain much of Donald Trump’s lying and secretiveness out of a lack of confidence in the authorities and his staff. The ‘deep state’ is always scheming and he will be misreported etc. Did you ever consider Hillary Clinton might have harbored a similar and maybe understandable paranoia over her emails?

              • Stupid, lazy, inattentive, corrupted, in denial. There are lots of reasons why people behave irrationally, but the fact that “many” do is not a valid indication of legitimacy. I learned a lot in then Sixties, one key lesson being that large groups of people could delude themselves that conclusions that made no sense were the discovered wisdom of the age. Fact: a law professor who fakes minority status to gain an unearned advantage in academia while posing as the champion of minorities, and who continues to justify it is untrustworthy. It’s not a debatable conclusion. Nor is the conclusion that someone with Clinton’s hideous record is similarly untrustworthy. The Earth spins, Lincoln was the 16th President, and Hillary Clinton is a hypocrite and a fraud. People can reject reality, and do. I don’t have to respect them when they do.

                • As for the second part of your comment, its a non-sequitur. The president has a duty to carry out his office, and not permit anyone or anything to illicitly interfere with his ability to carry out his duties. Hillary violated law and policy in her own Department, did so for highly dubious motives, and it was not an anomaly in her career. She did it: this was no fabrication, and she had no ethical duty to prevent a legitimate inquiry. She wasn’t President, you see.

                  There was, as with Hillary (and Warren), no justifiable reason to trust Donald Trump, either….until the public chose him as the nation’s leader. Then he has to be trusted: the slate has been wiped clean. He has to be trusted, or he can’t do the job he was elected to do, and he has to have that opportunity.

                  • Side note: many are willing to give Trump leeway because he has been the first politician in quite a while to do what he promised conservatives he would do. He was supported initially as the only choice other than Hillary (and destruction) but his actions have spoken volumes on the right.

                    Just as Trump got the conservative vote by default, so now the GOP is winning the moderate and casual support of democrat voters. The slim Democrat winnings of the midterms showed the trend’s start. People are seeing what the Democrats would do if given power. Every day AOC opens her mouth, every time the Democrats go full socialism, each time we see the insane screeching from the left, every ‘bombshell’ that is utter fantasy in the New York Times, more opinions shift back toward the right.

                    At this point the Media is hurting the Democrats:we have crossed the line where common Americans have started paying attention. Winning the House is likely the worst thing for the continued health of the Democratic party that could have happened, after the two years of ‘resistance’ showed common Americans what they really think and how low they are willing to act.

                  • “Then he has to be trusted: the slate has been wiped clean. He has to be trusted, or he can’t do the job he was elected to do, and he has to have that opportunity.”

                    What’s the general principal here? In what other cases would you wipe the slate clean? Does this apply to Senators and Congressmen too? How about corporate CEOs? Or is this a special ethics exception that only applies to the President?

                    On another note, why does he have to have that opportunity? What does that even mean? You can’t be suggesting that the political opposition in a democracy should just sit down and shut up.

                    Finally, the idea that Donald Trump should can trusted is objectively wrong, as proven by his long history.

                    • I’ve been clear about this. When a President is elected, he must begin with the loyalty and good will of the public, or he can’t do his job. I explained the Caine Mutiny analogy. I have made the Golden Rule explanation. When a President is elected, he becomes the President, and the nation must trust the President. What is the principle? The principle is that leadership and government doesn’t work any other way..and indeed, that is what we are seeing.Many previous Presidents had pasts that suggested they were untrustworthy. Jefferson. Jackson. Johnson. Grant. Arthur. Truman. LBJ. Nixon. They deserved a chance to prove that the office elevated them. So does Trump, but he has not received that chance.

              • Andrew, it beats the living hell out of me why anyone could find Hillary anything other than absolutely despicable. Lots of people think she’s Joan of Arc. A mystery for the ages. Do you have an explanation?

                • Bill. I’m sorry I can’t help you with why anyone should not think Hillary Clinton is despicable. I don’t even really understand why people (like you?) do. But to my mind you are asking one of the most crucial and profound questions : why doesn’t everyone think as I do?

                  Occasionally I get a glimpse of the importance of our different cultural backgrounds. We are loaded with a massive weight of general beliefs and preconceptions, many of which lie quite hidden to our conscious minds.

                  If you get to see the new Mary Poppins (I just have) you might notice cultural cues which are quite strong for my tribe. The villain is an apparently sweet banker who lies and cheats, assisted by unsavoury lawyers. A key female lead (Jane) cares for the unemployed (it is set in the 1930s slump). The lead male is an artist. The family displays a classic English stereotype : well bred, well educated, artistic and sliding out of prosperity. They are genteel. They are ‘good’. They would probably be typical 1930s committed socialists, driven by an honest (even if misguided) keenness to build a better world. They might even be related to an idealistic Cambridge student who becomes a soviet spy (like Kim Philby).

                  I recognise that my underlying naively sentimental mental wiring is collectivist ‘care and share’. I naturally distrust shady property developers and failed casino owners, let alone promoters of sham colleges, and compulsive liars. I have to turn all my automatic responses off (I do try) before I can give Donald Trump any sort of fair consideration. Fortunately I am not a US citizen so I don’t have to follow Jack’s direction to ‘wipe the slate clean’ and ‘trust Trump’ as some form of civic duty. I know in any event that my opinion doesn’t matter.

                  So I can only suggest you try honestly to introspect as to why you think as you do ( as to Hillary’s despicability) and why others might think differently. You will have seen Jack’s response (above), but I hope you don’t rest there. Good luck in your thinking and I hope you can emerge with greater clarity : as to why others may think differently to you. I’d very much appreciate if you can share any conclusions.

                  • “Despicable” is a subjective term. You tell me what the proper description is for a woman who covered up her serial sexual predator’s conduct by intimidating his victims and accusing his critics of manufacturing the Lewinsky scandal as part of a “conspiracy” while knowing it was true. Then she ran for President as a feminist saying that all victims of sexual assault should be believed. This is just one of many, many, indicators of Mrs. Clinton’s character. It is also fair to call despicable someone who, while certain that she will win an election, lectures her opponent on the absolute necessity of his accepting the result graciously, and then, when she loses, refuses to accept the result as legitimate. The question of her bad character and unethical nature has been definitively settled except for those in denial.

                    • Her successfully covering up for a serial sexual predator was what made the candidacy of Donald J. Trump possible.

                      would Trump’s candidacy have been possible if Clinton had been remo\ved from office?

                      Or had resigned in disgrace?

                    • Would Trump’s candidacy have been possible if Clinton had been remo\ved from office?

                      Or had resigned in disgrace?

                      I am betting Trump would never have run, had not the discourse not been so lowered


                      Perhaps more damaging than Clinton’s conduct were the unethical messages and arguments his surrogates, lawyer Lanny Davis and others, flooded the talk shows and news shows with to keep public opinion supporting the poor, sexy, charming, persecuted President. They were the catalyst for my first ethics blog, for I was shocked at how invalid rationalizations were dominating the discussion. “Everybody does it!‘, used to excuse a President lying under oath, a bright line violation of his Oath of Office, because “everybody lies about sex.” “They did it too!,” citing actual and rumored sexual infidelities by past Presidents to minimize Clinton’s conduct, though had most of the actual affairs being cited been publicized at the time they occurred, those Presidents ( especially Kennedy) would have been impeached as well. “The King’s Pass,” claiming that Clinton was too important to hold to the standards of ordinary mortals. “It’s not the worst thing,” arguing that Clinton’s conduct didn’t reach the level of corruption of President Richard Nixon.* “Everybody makes mistakes,” as if a contrived cover-up of courtroom perjury and a months long workplace affair was “one mistake.” There were others. Lawyers, ministers, celebrities and elected leaders echoed these toxic excuses for Bill’s unethical conduct over and over again for months, rotting the public’s ethical instincts, all so he could get away with it. It worked, too. The Senate is a political body, and as long as the public had a high opinion of Clinton, it was never going to find him guilty of the House’s charges. If the President of the United States had to teach the country that lying under oath, having an adulterous sexual affair with an employee, lying to the public about it and impeding the justice system is acceptable, then so be it: the ends justify the means, of course.

  3. “Her successfully covering up for a serial sexual predator was what made the candidacy of Donald J. Trump possible.”

    So how do you view Hillary’s “covering up”? I get the impression you disapproved and viewed such conduct as ‘unethical’?

    Interesting. I admired how Hillary behaved through this period, which must for her have been quite humiliating. I don’t know why she supported her husband and how she kept her family together. In my book she deserves at least some credit for that. And in my ethics, you can never dob in your spouse! (Well, hardly ever ..)

    • Do your research. She personally orchestrated threats to silence the victims, and directed staff in the cover-up tactics. In the case of her Today Show interview, she not only lied to the news media but the American public by attributing the Lewinski scandal to a “vast right wing conspiracy.” Her “marriage” was an ongoing fraud on the public and political alliance, in which Bill’s predator activities were paart of the deal.

      Loyalty is an ethical value, but if you make it the primary virtue, you’re a potential Nazi. Honesty and trustworthiness are both higher on the scale. Abetting criminal activity and public deception is not virtuous because it was based on loyalty. Your “ethics” in this case are wrong.

  4. It’s remarkable how much easier it is to analyze complex problems accurately when one can maintain sufficient objectivity and remove, and can overcome bias and resist the lure of rationalizations.

    … once you explain it, it all seems so … so simple.

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