Trial Balloon for Paranoia: A markup of Yonatan Zunger’s “Trial Balloon for a Coup”

On Twitter, Zunger has conceded many of the below points and admitted that he would add caveats had he known his article was going to be read by as wide a group. As he does not wish to add these caveats now, I am posting this commentary as a corrective to what I see as unhelpful paranoia.

Tom Peplinsky’s rebuttal is also well-worth reading. On Twitter, Zunger’s response has been an appeal to Pascal’s Wager: that the danger of being wrong about a coup is too high to ignore his nightmare scenario. I consider this to be a specious argument capable of justifying nonstop fear and loss of perspective.

The theme of this morning’s news updates from Washington is additional clarity emerging, rather than meaningful changes in the field. But this clarity is enough to give us a sense of what we just saw happen, and why it happened the way it did.

Beware of any claims of clarity. The fog of war is immense now. 90% of what is going on is happening behind closed doors.

I’ll separate what’s below into the raw news reports and analysis; you may also find these two pieces from yesterday (heavily referenced below) to be useful.
News Reports
(1) Priebus made two public statements today. One is that the ban on Muslims will no longer be applied to green card holders. Notably absent from his statement was anything about people with other types of visa (including long-term ones), or anything about the DHS’ power to unilaterally revoke green cards in bulk.
The other was that the omission of Jews from the statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day was deliberate and is not regretted.
A point of note here is that Priebus is the one making these statements, which is not normally the Chief of Staff’s job. I’ll come back to that below.
(2) Rudy Giuliani told Fox News that the intent of yesterday’s order was very much a ban on Muslims, described in those words, and he was among the people Trump asked how they could find a way to do this legally.

Giuliani does not speak for the administration, nor did he have anything to do with the drafting of the order. He is not reliable and certainly has reason to want revenge on Trump, who humiliated him by not giving him Secretary of State after Giuliani said he was a shoo-in, and leaked that Giuliani lacked the “stamina” for the job. The Trump administration does not seem fond at all of Muslims, but the practical effects of the EO remain a mystery even now.

(3) CNN has a detailed story (heavily sourced) about the process by which this ban was created and announced. Notable in this is that the DHS’ lawyers objected to the order, specifically its exclusion of green card holders, as illegal, and also pressed for there to be a grace period so that people currently out of the country wouldn’t be stranded — and they were personally overruled by Bannon and Stephen Miller. Also notable is that career DHS staff, up to and including the head of Customs & Border Patrol, were kept entirely out of the loop until the order was signed.

The order was drafted incompetently, so that it was unclear whether Green Card holders were or were not included. Bannon and Miller were indeed the motivating forces behind it, but they do not represent the entire White House. It seems more likely that the remaining WH has been trying to clean up their mess.

(4) The Guardian is reporting (heavily sourced) that the “mass resignations”of nearly all senior staff at the State Department on Thursday were not, in fact, resignations, but a purge ordered by the White House. As the diagram below (by Emily Roslin v Praze) shows, this leaves almost nobody in the entire senior staff of the State Department at this point.

The Guardian piece paints a very confusing picture. Clearly the administration chose to get rid of these people, but it is not clear at all the implications of the act nor the underlying motivation.

The seniormost staff of the Department of State. Blue X’s are unfilled positions; red X’s are positions which were purged. Note that the “filled” positions are not actually confirmed yet.
As the Guardian points out, this has an important and likely not accidental effect: it leaves the State Department entirely unstaffed during these critical first weeks, when orders like the Muslim ban (which they would normally resist) are coming down.

“Likely not accidental” is pure supposition. A lot of what’s going on at the moment is accidental, given the ham-fistedness and ignorance of the Bannon/Miller faction.

The article points out another point worth highlighting: “In the past, the state department has been asked to set up early foreign contacts for an incoming administration. This time however it has been bypassed, and Trump’s immediate circle of Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Reince Priebus are making their own calls.”

Bannon, Flynn, Kushner, and Priebus do not form a unified faction. Reports are that Flynn has been sidelined already. Priebus and Bannon seem to disagree on nearly everything, while Kushner has kept very quiet as Trump’s consigliere. One should never attribute motivations to them as a whole.

(5) On Inauguration Day, Trump apparently filed his candidacy for 2020. Beyond being unusual, this opens up the ability for him to start accepting “campaign contributions” right away. Given that a sizable fraction of the campaign funds from the previous cycle were paid directly to the Trump organization in exchange for building leases, etc., at inflated rates, you can assume that those campaign coffers are a mechanism by which US nationals can easily give cash bribes directly to Trump. Non-US nationals can, of course, continue to use Trump’s hotels and other businesses as a way to funnel money to him.

This doesn’t have much to do with a coup.

(6) Finally, I want to highlight a story that many people haven’t noticed. On Wednesday, Reuters reported (in great detail) how 19.5% of Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, has been sold to parties unknown. This was done through a dizzying array of shell companies, so that the most that can be said with certainty now is that the money “paying” for it was originally loaned out to the shell layers by VTB (the government’s official bank), even though it’s highly unclear who, if anyone, would be paying that loan back; and the recipients have been traced as far as some Cayman Islands shell companies.
Why is this interesting? Because the much-maligned Steele Dossier (the one with the golden showers in it) included the statement that Putin had offered Trump 19% of Rosneft if he became president and removed sanctions. The reason this is so interesting is that the dossier said this in July, and the sale didn’t happen until early December. And 19.5% sounds an awful lot like “19% plus a brokerage commission.”

This is very, very speculative. The Steele Dossier has not been verified in any way, shape, or form. The coincidence of the two percentages may be just that.

Yes, a sanctions quid pro quo is definitely a possibility, and worth thinking about. It still does not relate to a coup.

Conclusive? No. But it raises some very interesting questions for journalists to investigate.
What does this all mean?
I see a few key patterns here. First, the decision to first block, and then allow, green card holders was meant to create chaos and pull out opposition; they never intended to hold it for too long. It wouldn’t surprise me if the goal is to create “resistance fatigue,” to get Americans to the point where they’re more likely to say “Oh, another protest? Don’t you guys ever stop?” relatively quickly.

This is pure supposition. It’s not even clear that green card holders were originally intended to be part of the EO, given the ambiguity of the language in the incompetently draft. Bannon and Miller decided it was hours after its release, after DHS officials had said it didn’t apply to Green Card holders. They appear to have pushed for it to continue holding. Regardless, there is no way to assign a singular “goal” to the administration, since the weekend’s events were borne more of chaos than strategy. Bannon’s faction does seem to want to cause chaos, but there is no evidence of what particular form of chaos they wanted. It seems unlikely that what resulted matched their plan unless they are genius masterminds.

As for “resistance fatigue,” this sets up a no-win scenario. If you protest, you lose. If you don’t protest, you lose. This is defeatist logic. It’s also tautological. Given that the Trump administration is going to do shocking transgressive things, “resistance fatigue” is guaranteed! You don’t have to have it as a goal.

However, the conspicuous absence of provisions preventing them from executing any of the “next steps” I outlined yesterday, such as bulk revocation of visas (including green cards) from nationals of various countries, and then pursuing them using mechanisms being set up for Latinos, highlights that this does not mean any sort of backing down on the part of the regime.

The provisions exist outside of the executive branch. Of course they are not going to cede power explicitly in their own words. But this too does not indicate a coup, it’s simply keeping their options open.

Note also the most frightening escalation last night was that the DHS made it fairly clear that they did not feel bound to obey any court orders. CBP continued to deny all access to counsel, detain people, and deport them in direct contravention to the court’s order, citing “upper management,” and the DHS made a formal (but confusing) statement that they would continue to follow the President’s orders. (See my updates from yesterday, and the various links there, for details) Significant in today’s updates is any lack of suggestion that the courts’ authority played a role in the decision.

This is the most dangerous exaggeration. Steve Vladeck’s expert analysis suggests we should be highly skeptical of any organized, top-down order for defiance of injunctions. The incidents we are hearing about seem incidental, disorganized, and uncoordinated, far more likely to be the result of inertia or CBP aggression than of some orders from the WH. Sure, it’s possible Bannon called up CBP and said, “Hey, don’t release a few of those guys just yet, I want to see what happens,” but there is no evidence whatsoever for that.

And the DHS statement has nothing to do with the injunctions, but simply is a statement of process. Of course they’re going to follow the orders. There was no injunction against them as an entirety.

So instead of “frightening escalation,” say, “worrisome speculation.”

That is to say, the administration is testing the extent to which the DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

This does not follow. There’s no guarantee that whatever happened in this case would follow in some other case, and in any event, this made a very poor test of disobedience given the overall chaos. If there were to be a test, the orders would have been far more specific in the first place. Why would Priebus pull back on Sunday if they wanted the DHS to overreach as much as possible.

Yesterday was the trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States. It gave them useful information.

This is an astonishingly alarmist and irresponsible statement to make. It is unjustified supposition and should be labeled as such.

A second major theme is watching the set of people involved. There appears to be a very tight “inner circle,” containing at least Trump, Bannon, Miller, Priebus, Kushner, and possibly Flynn, which is making all of the decisions.

This is not a tight inner circle. Bannon and Miller are aligned, but Priebus is in league with the Republican establishment, Flynn is sidelined, Trump is trying to play them all off one another, and Kushner is a mystery. They are anything but unified.

Other departments and appointees have been deliberately hobbled, with key orders announced to them only after the fact, staff gutted, and so on. Yesterday’s reorganization of the National Security Council mirrors this: Bannon and Priebus now have permanent seats on the Principals’ Committee; the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have both been demoted to only attending meetings where they are told that their expertise is relevant; the Secretary of Energy and the US representative to the UN were kicked off the committee altogether (in defiance of the authorizing statute, incidentally).

I believe this is accurate, but none of this supports a coup. It seems more likely to lead to executive dysfunction than to power consolidation.

I am reminded of Trump’s continued operation of a private personal security force, and his deep rift with the intelligence community. Last Sunday, Kellyanne Conway (likely another member of the inner circle) said that “It’s really time for [Trump] to put in his own security and intelligence community,” and this seems likely to be the case.
As per my analysis yesterday, Trump is likely to want his own intelligence service disjoint from existing ones and reporting directly to him; given the current staffing and roles of his inner circle, Bannon is the natural choice for them to report through. (Having neither a large existing staff, nor any Congressional or Constitutional restrictions on his role as most other Cabinet-level appointees do) Keith Schiller would continue to run the personal security force, which would take over an increasing fraction of the Secret Service’s job.

Pure speculation.

Especially if combined with the DHS and the FBI, which appear to have remained loyal to the President throughout the recent transition, this creates the armature of a shadow government: intelligence and police services which are not accountable through any of the normal means, answerable only to the President.

Not clear at all that the DHS and FBI have remained loyal to the president, just because they haven’t shown open dissent as the CIA has. A senior DHS official said “No one has any idea what is going on” Friday night. They do not sound like a unified bloc.

The “shadow government” is pure hyperbole which makes it sound like we’re turning into Russia.

(Note, incidentally, that the DHS already has police authority within 100 miles of any border of the US; since that includes coastlines, this area includes over 60% of Americans, and eleven entire states. They also have a standing force of over 45,000 officers, and just received authorization to hire 15,000 more on Wednesday.)

Just like they did under Obama.

The third theme is money. Trump’s decision to keep all his businesses (not bothering with any blind trusts or the like), and his fairly open diversion of campaign funds, made it fairly clear from the beginning that he was seeing this as a way to become rich in the way that only dedicated kleptocrats can, and this week’s updates definitely tally with that. Kushner looks increasingly likely to be the money-man, acting as the liaison between piles of cash and the president.

Yes, I have no doubt Trump is trying to enrich himself through the presidency.

This gives us a pretty good guess as to what the exit strategy is: become tremendously, and untraceably, rich, by looting any coffers that come within reach.

This isn’t a coup. It’s just looting the country.

Combining all of these facts, we have a fairly clear picture in play.


Trump was, indeed, perfectly honest during the campaign; he intends to do everything he said, and more. This should not be reassuring to you.

He said many contradictory things during his campaign.

The regime’s main organizational goal right now is to transfer all effective power to a tight inner circle, eliminating any possible checks from either the Federal bureaucracy, Congress, or the Courts. Departments are being reorganized or purged to effect this.

See above.

The inner circle is actively probing the means by which they can seize unchallenged power; yesterday’s moves should be read as the first part of that.

“Actively probing” is an overstatement. They are trying to consolidate power, but do not appear to be doing so in a particularly organized manner. It seems more likely to result in breakdown of executive power than consolidation. As I have said, it looks more like an autocracy at the end of its existence than the beginning.

The aims of crushing various groups — Muslims, Latinos, the black and trans communities, academics, the press — are very much primary aims of the regime, and are likely to be acted on with much greater speed than was earlier suspected. The secondary aim of personal enrichment is also very much in play, and clever people will find ways to play these two goals off each other.

Neither of these goals require a coup.

If you’re looking for estimates of what this means for the future, I’ll refer you back to yesterday’s post on what “things going wrong” can look like. Fair warning: I stuffed that post with pictures of cute animals for a reason.

Again, this underscores the doom-and-gloom nature of this post and undermines its claim to be grounded analysis. It should not be taken as any sort of prediction, but as a worst-case scenario spun out from cherry-picked anecdotes, conspiratorial interpretations of ambiguous events, and a general neglect of Occam’s and Hanlon’s Razors.

Looking to do your part? One way to get involved is to read the Indivisible Guide, which is written by former congressional staffers and is loaded with best practices for making Congress listen.