One of the frequent gambits of the right whenever some Republican gets caught doing something that pushes the envelope of our norms and traditions is to hit the Googles and find one example of some Democrat doing something vaguely similar and then say “See? Everybody does it.”
The classic example here is the Robert Byrd parry. That is, some Republican says some crazy racist thing or is discovered to have spoken to one of those “citizen’s council”-type groups, something any politician should have stopped doing 50 years ago. People like me bang on about it. And conservatives invariably fire back with: “Yeah, but Robert Byrd was in the KKK, libtard!” It was 70 years ago, and Byrd renounced his membership and apologized for it a hundred times, and anyway he’s been pushing up Mountain State daisies for seven years now. But they’ll never stop with the Byrd thing. It’s F4 on conservatives’ computers.
This brings us to the matter at hand, which is the explosive story The Washington Post posted last Friday about Jared Kushner proposing to Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that they set up a communications back-channel using Russian communications equipment. Of all the Russia-related scoops of the young Trump era, this one may well have been the biggest.
It’s out of bounds for an incoming administration to seek to have secret negotiations with any other country. But to want to have them with an adversary that our intelligence agencies had concluded meddled in our election—which was public knowledge well before the time of Kushner’s chat with Kislyak—is way out of bounds. And to propose that the discussion be held through the adversary’s channels is more than way out of bounds.
The Times ran one of those historical-context pieces Thursday that discussed other similar episodes in American history—when presidents-elect or their minions did such a thing before Inauguration Day. The paper came up with only two examples of pre-inaugural meddling (the date’s important because it makes all the difference; once you’re president you can set up all the back channels you want). Bobby Kennedy took a phone call from a Soviet actor in late 1960. This was initiated by the Russian party, and the Kennedys made no effort to conceal it. So this was fine.
The other of course was Richard Nixon’s subverting of the Paris Peace talks on Vietnam in 1968. This is well-known, and I don’t need to go into it here. It was disgraceful. It may have prolonged the war and cost American lives. LBJ called it “treason.”
OK. There’s your context. Now let’s return to this “everybody does it” idea. It was imperative in this case to cleanse Kushner, and the way to cleanse him was of course to soil Obama.
And so, not long after the Post story broke, Breitbart.com’s Aaron Klein, author of such books as The Manchurian President and The Real Benghazi Story, posted a piece saying that in 2008, the Obama campaign opened a back channel to Iran. Take note: the campaign! Before he was even elected. So not only did Obama also do it but, of course, it was worse!
Klein’s story was based on something written previously by Michael Ledeen, that old neocon and occasional enthusiast of Italian fascism. Ledeen wrote a piece for PJ Media in 2014 charging that the Obama campaign sent a diplomat named William Miller to “assure the mullahs that [Obama] was a friend of the Islamic Republic,” as Ledeen put it. That’s what Breitbart.com used as pushback. Then The Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel said it on Meet the Press last Sunday. Since then it’s been all over the right-wing media, a huge meme.
But according to Miller and former Obama aide Ben Rhodes, who worked on the 2008 campaign and in the Obama White House, it’s flat-out false.
Miller, responding to my question about Ledeen’s charge via email, said: “It is false. The Obama campaign did not send me to Iran to establish a back channel before he was elected.”
Rhodes, also via email, wrote: “It is absurd and not true that the Obama campaign or transition team opened up a back channel to Iran with anyone, including Bill Miller. I have no idea where that rumor came from, but I was surprised to hear it—given that our Iran diplomacy has been scrutinized more than just about anything else we did over the last 10 years, you’d think that something like that would have come up already. What a coincidence that this false rumor emerges now! Anyway, by the time we did establish a secret channel, one of the main participants was the Deputy Secretary of State (Bill Burns), and the relevant agencies were included.”
Miller, I’m advised, is a respected diplomat who did so-called Track II diplomacy to Iran for many years. Track II means nongovernmental, informal, and unofficial contacts with foreign officials. So Miller could easily have been meeting with Iranian officials in 2008, though not necessarily at the behest of the Obama campaign.
Now read closely the way Ledeen phrased matters in that 2014 column: “Ambassador Miller has confirmed to me his conversations with Iranian leaders during the 2008 campaign.” He confirmed “conversations.” No mention, however, of Miller confirming that the conversations were at the Obama team’s behest. Wouldn’t Ledeen have written that if he’d had specific confirmation? Pretty big story!
The actual back channel to Iran was established, according to this David Ignatius column, in May 2009. Ignatius was actually citing a book, Alter Egos, by The New York Times’ Mark Landler. Ignatius knows the intel world very well, and Landler is a meticulous reporter.
I have no expectation that Miller’s and Rhodes’ disavowals will change anything on the right, any more than Robert Byrd’s death did. But those of you in the reality-based community should take note. When you hear someone repeat this allegation on television—the principals involved say it’s a lie.
So no, everybody doesn’t do it. Only Jared Kushner (and Mike Flynn) did it. And Richard Nixon. Funny how his name keeps coming up these days. Or maybe something other than funny.