The Innocent Explanation, Part #2: The Mailer Standard

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Friday afternoon, TPM Senior Editor Catherine Thompson keyed in on this statement from White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders: “The big point here is the president himself knows what his involvement was and that’s zero. And I think that he’s the primary person that should be held responsibility and he had no interaction and I think that’s what the story should be focused on.”

This does seem like a significantly new position and one to take note of.

There’s a lot going on in these two brief sentences. They can be summarized as follows: 1) The President is clean. 2) If others are dirty, that’s not the President’s problem. 3) If others are dirty, it doesn’t matter because the President is clean.

I am dubious that the President will be able to maintain this standard considering there’s little evidence that any of his foreign policy and national defense ideas do not come from his advisors. But it’s a clear statement of where the President and his top staffers want to set the bar, where they feel confident setting the bar, or at least where the feel the least unconfident setting the bar.

This reminded of something I read years ago. It was actually more than two decades ago so I may have some minor details off. But the gist is what’s important.

Back in 1992 or 1993 I was living in Providence starting my history Phd. This was shortly after Norman Mailer wrote Harlot’s Ghost (1991), a mammoth novel set in the Cold War CIA. About this time I happened upon an article, I think, in The New Yorker about Mailer and Harlot’s Ghost. As best I can remember it focused on a talk Mailer had recently given about his research for the book. Perhaps it was an interview. I don’t remember.

In this talk or interview, Mailer described his theory of why the CIA tried to cover up certain elements of the Kennedy Assassination. As Mailer saw it, the CIA had tried to cover up elements of the assassination not because they were implicated but because they couldn’t be certain they weren’t. The early 1960s CIA was tied up with so many crazies and bad actors – far-right anti-Castro emigre crazies, double agents, La Cosa Nostra, double agents who might really be triple agents, domestic right wing groups, domestic left wing groups – that it was impossible for them to know whether one of those trails from the Kennedy murder might not lead back to them.

Whether this was an accurate read of the CIA and the Kennedy assassination, I have no idea. But it always struck me as a piercing and perhaps profound insight into human nature and the inherent messiness of knowledge and complex, opaque organizations. If some version of my ‘innocent explanation‘ is accurate, one can easily imagine the Mailer Standard comes into play.

Consider an example.

Trump put Paul Manafort in charge of his campaign in March of 2016. At first he was nominally in charge only of delegate wrangling. But he was running the campaign, to the degree anyone but Trump ever was, from that point onward. This was also the monthTrump announced his first batch of five foreign policy advisors – one of whom was Carter Page, chief advisor on Europe and Russia. It was also the month when Trump had that meeting with his new foreign policy advisors at the new Trump DC hotel and outlined the policy imperative which, J.D. Gordon says, was the basis of Gordon’s intervening when the GOP platform committee was writing its Ukraine plank at the GOP convention in Cleveland.

A lot happened that month.

It was also the month when Mike Flynn’s position solidified from being vaguely in the Trump mix to being a full-fledged surrogate. It seems likely that Manafort had a strong hand in choosing that initial batch of advisors as well as shaping what emerged that month as Trump’s highly negative stance toward NATO and impatience with US involvement in Ukraine.

Now, Manafort set up shop in Trump Tower in 2006. In 2008 he and his business partners put together a $895 million deal with Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash to purchase the site of what was the Drake Hotel and redevelop it as the ‘Bulgari Tower’, a luxury spa and shopping mall. The deal appears to have come apart because it ended up coinciding with the 2008 financial crash.

Firtash is perhaps the most notorious, quintessential Ukrainian oligarch. He made his fortune in the energy trade between Russia and Ukraine. He is currently in a sort of limbo, a gilded cage as Bloomberg News puts it. He is in Vienna, unable to return to Ukraine and fighting extradition to the United States. He was very close to Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed President who Manafort worked for for years. He also has deep ties to Russia.

Firtash has long been looked at with suspicion by the US government because he is believed to be closely tied to Semion Mogilevich, the most notorious Russian organized crime boss who was on the FBI most wanted list until 2015. Mogilevich is now living in Russia. You’ll remember from a few days ago that litigation tied to Trump associate Felix Sater identified Sater’s father Mikhail Sater as a part of Mogilevich’s crime organization. I’m told by someone who knows the Ukraine money world intimately that Manafort was always trying to set up deals of this sort with those around Yanukovych. How many others there were is unclear. We only know the Drake Hotel deal because it came up in a lawsuit. The proposed Drake Hotel deal looks quite similar to the roughly contemporaneous Trump Soho project, which also drew most or all of its investment capital from Russia and Kazakhstan. This is a recurrent pattern: money earned in the treacherous world of the post-Soviet successor states seeking out the political stability and ever rising values of real estate in major cities in the West.

Now, are all these moving parts connected together in some dark puzzle? I have no idea. But look at it through the prism of the Mailer Standard. Trump did put Manafort in charge of his campaign and foreign policy operation as they started to congeal in the spring of 2016. Let’s assume you’re Donald Trump and your hands are clean, as far as it goes. Or let’s assume you’re someone with half a brain and you’re charged with protecting Donald Trump. How confident are you that a thorough look at that skein of Putin-aligned oligarchs, deposed strongmen, billion dollar real estate deals, Russian organized crime and mysterious peace deals wouldn’t turn up something at least awkward and possibly quite bad?

Right, me neither.

Indeed, to the extent Trump really is an improbable innocent bystander on all of this business, that means he’s probably even more in the dark, intentionally or otherwise, about just what was going on.

What it all amounts to is that Donald Trump doesn’t need to have any deep dark secret for it to make every sense in the world for him to resist at all costs the kind of investigation even many Republicans are now demanding.

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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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