Mark Esper and the Unseen Intelligence
The Snowjob, Part II
Over the weekend, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper went on Face The Nation and said he "did not see" any intelligence pointing to specific threats to four embassies, a clam that Trump seemed to have made up off the cuff for no better reason than it sounded better for his purposes than an attack one embassy.
The news media made some initial half-hearted bows in the direction of the truth by saying it was unclear where Trump got that number from or even speculating that he'd made it up, then went ahead with reporting the number because it was the number that existed to be reported. They don't have a script for what to do when the so-called president of these benighted states is lying and they know he's lying but can't prove it, and frankly after three years of this it's inexcusable.
Esper is the actual Secretary of Defense. Not even (any longer) just the acting one, he has been appointed and confirmed. But the line he takes is that just because he didn't happen to see any such intelligence, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and if Mr. Trump says it does, then God bless and keep him, that ought to be good enough for anybody, right?
Of course the right-wing media and Trump's base took Esper's performance (a term I use with deliberate precision) as confirmation that Trump was right, because he wouldn't say Trump was wrong. There could be intel that reached the commander-in-chief's desk and that he acted upon with lethal military force without the Secretary of Defense knowing anything about it. There probably isn't and if things are working correctly there shouldn't be, but there could be.
This is why The Snow Job matters. This is why the little lies that everyday erode the concept of truth a little bit more matter. We've reached the point where Donald Trump can commit the country on a course of war on an impulse, for the most venal reasons imaginable, and then make up an ex post facto justification off the top of his head and the most senior officials of the US government find themselves 100% committed to making sure the truth of this is not exposed, where the only nods they make to the truth are done to very carefully insulate themselves from the fallout of lying.
As the situation persists and it becomes increasingly clear that there's not any consequence to the lie, I think we'll see less and less of that. If Donald and Esper are both in their respective roles after January of next year, I expect we'll hear Esper not just backing up Trump's imagined intelligence but claiming he saw it and signed off on it himself.
When George W. Bush lied us into war with Iraq, he and his enablers felt it was necessary to construct a rationale in advance, with cherry-picked intelligence and carefully shaded reports they could point to and say, "See? This isn't just us doing what we want to do because we want to do it." I'm not pointing this out to say that Bush was better, but to say the situation was better to the point that they had to work for their evil.
Trump is, or aspires to be, a dictator in the purest sense of the word. He longs for a world where he can rule by declaration, where we attack Iran because he says so, and Iran had nukes pointed at a puppy rescue where Baby Yoda lives because he said they do and asking for proof is unnecessary and unthinkable. It's true because he said so.
George Orwell, in 1984, wrote "The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command."
Donald understands that this is actually the first step and not the final one. Dr. Sunny Moraine on Twitter wrote a thread about this as an authoritarian impulse, an instinct that he in particular has honed:
Mark Esper isn't at the point where he will agree that two lights plus two lights equals five lights, but he's not willing to deny there's a fifth if Big Brother says there is. He hasn't personally seen it, but who's to say? Who's to say? Maybe it did snow in Washington yesterday and we just didn't see it.
In any case, Reuters went with an interesting headline for their write-up:
Pentagon chief says no specific evidence Iran was plotting to attack four U.S. embassies
Arguably the headline is inaccurate; he didn't deny there was specific evidence but said he didn't see it. But in choosing this headline, they make it more difficult for anyone to use their article to further the narrative that Esper confirmed Trump's claim. Is this a step forward? A lateral move? I'm actually not sure how I feel about it. I think it's better than the headline-as-stenography approach, of just repeating the soundbyte provided by a dishonest witness.