Streetwise Professor

March 11, 2017

One Degree of Idiocy: Michael Weiss Expounds on Trump-Putin Connections

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:59 pm

Some years ago, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” was somewhat popular. The object of the game was to connect any randomly chosen actor to Kevin Bacon in six movies or less.

Today, the game that is all the range in DC and the media is Six Degrees of Donald Trump. The main difference is that the starting point is not any randomly chosen individual, but one very specific individual: Vladimir Putin.

Not surprisingly, the most  demented and absurd entry in this game was submitted by Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast. Here’s how it goes. Putin is connected to Gazprom. Gazprom was a participant in a consortium (which also included European energy giants Shell, ENGIE, Winterhall, OMV, and Uniper) to build the Nordstream 2 pipeline. This consortium hired McClarty Associates as a lobbyist. McClarty employs ex-US diplomat Richard Burt. Burt made suggestions about Russia policy that a third party passed on to Trump. As a bonus connection, Burt attended two dinners hosted by Jeff Sessions, and wrote white papers for him.

Burt has never met Trump. Like many in the foreign policy establishment, Burt advocates a pragmatic approach to Russia. He was engaged in diplomacy with the USSR while in the Reagan administration (hardly a hotbed of commsymps and Russophiles), and shockingly, has continued to do business in Russia in the past 30 years. But apparently under the Oceania Has Always Been at War With Eastasia mindset that dominates DC at present, this is tantamount to Burt being a Russian puppet (a view that requires the consignment of most of the history of that period, not least of all that of the Obama administration 2009-2014, to the Memory Hole).

As far as connections are concerned, this is about as tenuous as one can get. The headline (“The Kremlin’s Gas Company Has a Man in Trumpland”) is a vast overstatement. For one thing, Burt is barely in Trumpland. Indeed, although the article says that the connection offers “Republican bona fides,” it is almost certain that was not the reason for hiring McClarty. Astoundingly, the article fails to note that said McClarty himself is a Clintonoid: Mack McClarty is from an old-time Arkansas political family, was closely connected to Bill Clinton in Arkansas, and was Clinton’s first chief of staff. Weiss ominously starts his piece with a recounting of the importance of having a krysha (“roof”, i.e., political protection) and insinuates that hiring Burt was intended to obtain a roof in the Trump administration. But if anything, it would have been an entree into a Clinton administration–which, of course, everybody figured was an inevitability.

Furthermore, perhaps Weiss hasn’t noticed, but “Republican bona fides” are hardly a ticket into Trumpland. Trump’s relationship with the party establishment varies between the hostile and the transactional.

And the timing is all wrong: the contract was signed before Trump was even the Republican nominee, and at a time when no one figured he would be the party’s candidate, let alone president. Talk about a deep out-of-the-money option.

It’s also rather bizarre that the connection between Burt and Gazprom also involves several very large European companies, and a purely European issue. There is nary an American company involved, and the matter is an intramural European spat pitting eastern vs. western EU countries. Wouldn’t you think that if you are trying to buy influence in the United States, you’d engage McClarty/Burt on an issue that would allow them to interact with US officials and politicians?

Further, if you are going to buy a krysha in the Trump administration, dontcha think you’d want to hire somebody who, you know, actually knows Trump?

But our Mikey is not deterred by such pesky details. He has a connection between Putin and Trump, and he is going to flog it for all it’s worth. Which isn’t much.

Of course the details of the Burt-Trump (non-) connection alone wouldn’t make for much of an article, especially for Weiss, who typically drones on paragraph after endless paragraph. So he adds gratuitous ad hominem attacks on Burt, such as comparing him to the late Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin (career diplomats are a type–who knew?), and trotting out Bill Browder, who snarked about how gauche the Russian influence efforts were back in the bad old days (you know, when he was on the make in Russia) and yet again drags out the corpse of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in order to score political points.

Weiss also notes that McClarty has been retained by a Mikhail Fridman company in the UK, but fails to point out that Fridman is hardly a Putin pet. Indeed, Fridman took on Sechin, and came out the winner. But in Weiss’ worldview–which makes that of a 1950s John Bircher look nuanced by comparison–all them Russkies are Putin pawns.

And the anti-Trump establishment should at least get its story straight. On the same day that Weiss’ article appeared, Foreign Policy ran a piece claiming that Tillerson is a weak Secretary of State (the weakest ever, in fact!) because he doesn’t have Trump’s ear. So Trump ignores his own Secretary of State but somehow a guy whom he has never met and who has no position in the administration exerts some great influence over him? And weren’t we told a month ago that Tillerson was going to be Putin’s cat’s paw in the Trump administration because of his extensive dealings there (including with Gazprom in Sakhalin I)? But now he’s a nobody? Damn, that Memory Hole is getting a helluva workout.

Indeed, if the Burt connection (such as it is) and the like are the best that these people can come up with, they are doing a great job of showing how limited and tenuous Trump’s ties to Russia are. And remember the whole point of the Kevin Bacon game: it was a cutesy way of illustrating the “six degrees of association” theory, which posits that any two people in the world are separated by no more than six acquaintances. Any two people, no matter how obscure. Play Six Degrees of Vladimir Putin using yourself as the terminal connection: I bet you could connect with Vlad in six steps or less. I know I can. And does make me some sort of Putinoid? Hardly, as anyone who has read this blog knows.

When major international figures are involved, moreover, there are inevitably multiple such connections, often involving less than six steps. So finding a connection is about as earth shattering as finding sand on a beach. Furthermore, when considering a figure like Trump, he has myriad connections to other figures, many of whom may have interests and views contrary to Putin’s/Russia’s, or orthogonal thereto. Ignoring all these other contrary connections and focusing monomaniacally on ties to Putin and Russia when attempting to predict or explain Trump’s motivations is beyond asinine. In econometrics, this is called omitted variable bias–if you omit relevant variables, you get a very biased estimate of the influence of the ones you include.

But this is what passes for journalism in the United States right now: parlor games posing as deep analysis, latent with dark meanings.

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  1. The Russia stuff – all these details… oh yeah, right, Putin, etc, .. Lots of chatter… Don’t find myself concentrating on it really…Why? Don’t expect much of it is more than Democrats barking at the moon… but mainly, I have been distracted by my concerns – Medical – for the ACA health care replacement going on in Congress- much more pressing, and worrisome to me – for my families life… In our case we have benefited a lot since 2014 – from ACA’s California implementation – How engaged is Trump in making this better? – or as it looks, so far, worse. what I have read of those ideas of Ryan, Price. Russia may indeed be something big – probably not – and not as big to me as a healthcare screw up.

    Comment by Howard Seth Miller — March 11, 2017 @ 10:37 pm

  2. But we now know the point of the absurd fuss about the Russkis. It’s just an excuse for all the spying on Trump. Will that hold water in court? I do hope we get a chance to find out. But I’ll bet we won’t.

    Comment by dearieme — March 12, 2017 @ 8:36 am

  3. Oh yes, Nordstream. The consortium that Gerhard Schroeder joined days after leaving office, to utter silence from the media.

    including with Gazprom in Sakhalin I

    Gazprom is Sakhalin II
    Rosneft is Sakhalin I

    Admittedly it helps if you once lived and breathed the distinction. 😉

    Comment by Tim Newman — March 12, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

  4. In all my days of Russia watching, Trump’s name never came up. It seems that somewhere I would have read something, anything that mentioned him. Was he ever on your radar related to Russia? He obviously knew Manafort, but I never noticed how they knew each other.

    Comment by Howard Roark — March 13, 2017 @ 6:25 am

  5. @Howard Roark
    I remember that you have spent time in Ukraine and presumably visited Crimea. If you have time I am very interested in your view of the Crimean and Eastern Ukraine situations.

    Comment by pahoben — March 15, 2017 @ 4:36 pm

  6. Hi Pahoben, yes, I was in Ukraine in 2009 and 2010. I didn’t make it to Crimea at that time, but had gone there for a business trip about 5 years before. It has some incredible natural beauty crossed with the usual self-inflicted Soviet-built scars everywhere. I wish I could go back and spend more time there, but will have to wait, I think.

    I have much more I can add. I can try tomorrow, as it is getting late here. Thanks for asking.

    Comment by Howard Roark — March 15, 2017 @ 10:21 pm

  7. @Howard
    I look forward to it.

    Comment by pahoben — March 17, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

  8. Ugh, so much for reliability. I’m no longer the unoccupied bachelor I once was. Anyway, here is a very roughshod account of my thoughts on Urkaine. I’m not as on the ball as I used to be on these matters due to marriage and children, so I hope you do gain something from my mutterings below.

    I spent roughly 16 months in Odessa, Ukraine to take some time off after 5 years in Russia, study Russian, and do a little writing. I enjoyed myself immensely and miss Odessa, but definitely learned that Ukraine is not straightforward. I have wrestled with the Ukraine I wish it to be with the Ukraine it really is. To keep matters in context, though, my perspective is very Odessa-oriented only. I can’t speak for the many wide-ranging opinions that constitute the major regions and cities of Ukraine.

    In that regard, I have to say that my experiences with Odessites were very depressing. I even had to control my exposure to them since their attitudes toward nationhood, Russia, Putin, and governance were cynical, hopeless, and nihilistic. Every leader was a “fucker” no matter who it was. And I suppose it was true. Odessites hated Yuschenko, Tymoshenko, and NATO. They wanted to straddle the fence and be friends with both Russia and the West. I heard many vow that they could never fight a Russian. Others seemed to even question the validity of Ukrainian nationhood. Several wished that Putin could be their leader.

    I had Robert Conquest’s book “Harvest of Sorrow” on my coffee table. Two of my Ukrainian friends scolded me for reading it, saying everything about the Holomodor is lies. Of course, this is all anecdotal, but it was my sense that there was a consensus about these things throughout this region of the country. It was all very depressing. It was a huge contrast to the otherwise happy-go-lucky, beachside frivolity that you felt there. It was such a fun place to be with so many interesting things to do. When I left, I was sad and wasn’t sure if they had it in them to keep their country together. I felt a foreboding, but had no tangible prediction of what I was feeling. Fast forward a couple years and I think what I was feeling actually manifested itself in reality. Perfectly even.

    What happened? Well, there was already a natural split between the Russian-speaking and the, well, less Russian-speaking remainder of the country, as we all know. Irreconcilable in many respects. A very large chunk of the country prefers to speak Russian, so there is a strong bias there that causes many social and political problems. The West had been working hard to move Ukraine into their fold and Yanukovych created the final betrayal that triggered the Maidan events and the Russian intervention. Once the trigger occurred, all of Ukraine’s weaknesses became exposed instantly. Large numbers of Ukrainians were dormant citizens that could easily be swayed toward Russia. The military was absolutely worthless and defenseless. Combine those two forces and Crimea was gone in an instant. Were Crimeans pining to be part of Russia before this? Not really. Were they willing to go with the flow and join Russia? Hell yes.

    The pro-Russian sentiment found a limit though. Though eastern Ukraine was indeed very Russian, most Ukrainians were shocked and angry that this “invasion” occurred. People were stunned that Russia would do this to them. It caused people to choose a side. Odessa even went pro-Ukraine for the most part. (I only have a few contacts I’ve been in touch with there, so can’t speak definitively, but think that this is so) People started raising money for the military, flying Ukrainian flags, etc. and so some real patriotism has emerged. There is still reluctance to go into the army though, mostly because the army is so incompetent and corrupt. However, there are fleeting moments of hope that Ukraine will fight for their country. In my mind, this is one of the only ways to forge a nation, so if they want one, they better get going now.

    Still, the country is so weak, that the wind could blow it over at any moment. I don’t know what will happen next. This stalemate could go on for the rest of my life, possibly. Russia seems perfectly happy having failed states surrounding them, so the status quo may last awhile. However, if the Ukrainian government doesn’t get their act together, there could easily be a counter-revolution which could cause Russia to march right in to Kiev with everyone in the West watching with their fingers you-know-where.
    If I’m in a realpolitik mood, I say that Ukraine should give up on Crimea and move on. It breaks my heart, but I just see no way how it could ever return. If I go even further, they might even be wise to let go of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well. It will cost them a fortune in blood and treasure to get them back. That one is a tougher pill to swallow, though. There are many risks to doing that, not to mention it would stick in my craw. However, if they ever want to have unity and strength, it might be good to cut off the gangrene and start anew.

    Those are my scattered thoughts for now. Ukraine has a tough road. They are not Poland and they are not Russia. They are a borderland that doesn’t have its own clear identity. Russians know who they are, so do Poles. But Ukainians are only starting to figure it out. They’ve never been their own nation for any length of time. They better figure it out quickly if they want to keep it.

    The fine print: I reserve the right to change my mind any time I wish when it comes to Ukraine. It is just too confusing there.

    Comment by Howard Roark — March 20, 2017 @ 9:43 pm

  9. well, Howard, thanks for that

    What you saw was the overwhelming after-effects of a brutal sovok union system, which was based on fear, intimidation, threats and force. People were cynical long before the sovok union fell apart. In 1978, when I was there, one of my cousins wanted to get out so badly that he cried. Everyone did. I learned that people stole – everywhere – in order to survive. And they were also encouraged to spy on each other. One could not trust anyone – which is another thing the sovoks thrived on.

    People are not stupid – cynicism was indeed rampant. “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” And when the sovok union morphed into sovok mafia states, with garish disgusting conspicuous consumption on the part of oligarchs, and a brutal medieval feudal system – worse – where oligarchs stole, raped and killed with impunity – well, cynicism is understandable.

    Identity? Marx and Luxembourg had decreed that there were to be no nationalities – so people were forcibly re-settled all over the place, and the after effects of that are still evident. Estonians and many others wound up in Ukraine. Ukrainians wound up in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and many other places. That was an effort to create homo sovieticus, without nationalities. Any nationalism was promptly squished, and derided as “fascism” and worse. The Kremlinoids continue to engage in that propaganda today.

    Sovok citizens were taught that the “entire world was their address.”

    Hence – civil society was weak, except such as was underground through churches.

    The invasions by Russia were a shock. After all, Kremlinoids had continuously propagandized that Russia was a “brotherly nation”, and there was free movement between countries.

    The US played a part in disarming Ukraine – everyone knows that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons under the Budapest Memorandum. Additionally, Senators Lugar and Obummer played a prominent role in US influence to disarm Ukraine’s military. After all, US foreign policy has been that we “don’t want any crazies having nuclear or other weapons.”

    So who’s the crazies now?

    You are right – Putler invasions did indeed unite Ukraine. And the Ukrainians oligarchs, who were joined at the hip with Russian oligarchs, founds out that even they would no longer be safe under a Kremlinoid regime.

    So Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian Jewish oligarch with a shark tank in his office, funded a private army to protect Ukraine – and his own interests.

    Akhetov, a Ukrainian Tatar oligarch from Donbas, was and is still trying to play a double game, but the Russians have dismantled a lot of his steel mills, and are trying to destroy his coke plant – crucial for producing steel.

    Kremlinoids have indeed tried mightily to squish and eliminate Ukrainian identity, including through artificial famines (Stalin’s Holodomor – and today they screech “Sralin was Georgian, don’t blame us”).

    And there is corruption, aided in part by Manafort and Podesta and other US operatives, including assorted “hedge funds.”

    The sovoks had a saying – “think one thing, say another, do a third”

    Creates confusion.

    But if you look closely, Howard, it’s not that confusing.

    Comment by elmer — March 22, 2017 @ 9:09 am

  10. Dang, I happened to look back at the previous post “Putin Is So Smart That He Outsmarted Himself–You Should Have Listened to Me, Vlad” and missed the whole discussion.

    Comment by Howard Roark — March 22, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

  11. @elmer,

    I am very comfortable with your point of view. Ukraine has taken so many blows in their history, that it has been difficult for them to ever get a square footing.

    I’ll still say that it is confusing since Ukraine’s options are far more limited now. Before, I don’t think they had enough nationalism in their blood (except Western Ukraine) to ward off all the Russian and Soviet hijinks you list. There were too many shoulders shrugging and wishes for “why can’t we all just get along?” Any country that wants to exist will keep their swords sharp in peace as well as in war. Ukraine didn’t do that and are paying the price now. I grieve over this and wish it wasn’t true, but it is. And yes, of course, Russia started sabotaging the place decades ago. Just look at Transneister, the Baltics, Kaliningrad. Throw Russians in there and keep the shit stirred in there permanently. The only place it didn’t work was in the “-stans” and we all know why the Russians got the hell out of there in a hurry.

    Anyway, I’m pleased to see a more vigilant society in Ukraine, but they had to learn it the hard way. I just hope that Ukraine has the mettle and competence to salvage themselves. If they do, I really can’t tell what the borders of the country will be when it’s all over.

    Comment by Howard Roark — March 22, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

  12. Howard, I think you are seriously underestimating the Ukrainians in Eastern Ukraine. Very seriously. The “cyborgs” demonstrated that in the Donetsk airport, but that’s not the only example.

    Why do I say that? First-hand reports from elections observers, and observers, in Eastern Ukraine. Plus – “Russian culture” – what is that?

    And you are exactly right. As the Romans said, “if you want peace, prepare for war.” I have seen that many, many times – from Ukrainians.

    Comment by elmer — March 22, 2017 @ 9:43 pm

  13. Excellent contributions, Howard. You too, elmer.

    Comment by Tim Newman — March 23, 2017 @ 7:40 am

  14. Elmer:

    Vlad has tried to follow the link, but to no avail. Any alternatives or You Tube links or other attributions for Vlad to search?

    VP VVP

    PS Ditto, Mr. Newman’s comments line 13.

    Comment by VP Vlad — March 24, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

  15. Thanks Howard and I like your gangrene approach. Ukraine is like the guy in the canyon with his arm stuck in a crevice and a knife in his pocket.

    You have captured an essence. There are democratic systems and non democratic systems but in Ukraine it is the paradoxic system. I don’t want you to go but I don’t want you to stay. Kurt Godel is the father of national policy.

    Comment by pahoben — March 24, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

  16. Ukraine. Interesting comments from Howard and Elmer on Ukraine.Some things sound very much like Russia where most people still do not understand the power they have now with the vote.They simply do not understand even at a Local Gov.level you do not need to be a billioaire to affect the outcome. They complain about the local Mayor and corruption they know is going on but next election do nothing. There reaction like in Soviet times is to say “Why doesn’t the Kremlin do something about it.” It is always a they should do something.If enough complain an investigator will be sent. The Mayor etc. sacked and an administrator put in only for the locals to do nothing and often elect another corrupt millionaire at the next elections.They don’t want Communism back but they don’t know how to make Democracy work. (Something like the US is now going through.) Russians overall do look on Ukraine as brothers and cousins. Inevitable with so many ethnic Russians there. You though can pick up in overall terms this does not apply in broad terms to West Ukraine. As I understand it the West is basically made up of Romanian Polish etc. descent and what could be called the true Ukranian in the center. Russians I met do in many ways consider the people of the West and Center of Ukraine as lazy and less productive and in most as a burden on the USSR. More or less born out by the fact all the real productive industry is in the East and South. While most hold no real animosity to Germany from WW2 it is just the opposite with West Ukraine. They still clearly remember how many joined the SS and sided with the AXIS. They are considered traitors.

    Comment by Rodney — March 27, 2017 @ 5:20 am

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