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.
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.