Coincidence in Politics: All the President’s Men
A series of similar low-probability events suggests an underlying explanation.
Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, wondered aloud about coincidences. A column by Charles Blow in the New York Times was titled “Dwindling Odds of Coincidence.” The events in question involve the many intersections between people working for Donald Trump and people associated with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. A series of intersections becomes evidence against a mere coincidence when a causal link appears. The possible link appears to be Trump's presidential election bid. In the study of coincidences, a list of apparently independent yet similar events in a relatively narrow time window cannot conclusively prove there is an underlying explanation. As the number of similar events increases, their collective probability becomes lower which increases the likelihood of there being a causal explanation. Coincidences alert us to the possibility of a hidden cause. The hard evidence comes in the form of testimony and paper-email trails.
How strongly does a list of meetings involving Trump men and Putin men indicate an underlying causal explanation? Like many other coincidences, the interpretation of causality is greatly influenced by the beliefs of the evaluator. Supporters of Donald Trump will dismiss the list as non-evidence of anything while detractors will see more than enough evidence for criminal activity. Let’s neutrally examine the limited information from what can only be an incomplete list with incomplete details. How strongly does this list suggest that these meetings have an underlying explanation?
December 2015: Michael Flynn collected nearly $68,000 in fees and expenses from Russia-related entities in 2015. The records show that the bulk of the money, more than $45,000, came from the Russian government-backed television network RT, in connection with a December 2015 trip Flynn took to Moscow. Flynn has acknowledged that RT sponsored his trip, during which he attended a gala celebrating the network’s 10th anniversary. Flynn was forced to resign as national security adviser amid controversy over his contacts with Russia’s Ambassador Kislyak after the election which he had failed to report. July, 2016: J.D. Gordon, former Trump campaign adviser, met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak during the Republican convention in Cleveland and successfully helped to remove an anti-Russian provision from the GOP platform.
July 18, 2016: Then Senator Jeffrey Sessions and an early Trump supporter spoke with Russian Ambassador Kislyak at a panel hosted by the Heritage Foundation at the Republican National Convention. On Sept. 8, 2016 Sessions and Kislyak meet in his Senate office. Sessions at first denied having met with Kislyak and then admitted that he did. July 27, 2016: Donald Trump called for Russian interference on his behalf in the presidential election.
August 21, 2016: Roger Stone longtime Trump friend, adviser, and political consultant tweeted “Trust me, it will soon be Podesta's time in the barrel,” referring to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. WikiLeaks released a trove of Podesta's emails in October. The Russians had been involved with this hack. Coincidence Analysis
A coincidence analysis begins with categorizing its form and then defining the similarity of its elements, and the probability of the occurrence of each event. The probability of the entire set of events is estimated by multiplying the probability of each event.
There are 3 general coincidence forms—Mind-Thing, Mind-Mind and Thing-Thing. This series is a thing-thing coincidence also called a serial coincidence. A serial coincidence is made of elements that are all similar—for example, a string of monkey symbols. Pattern Similarity
What pattern seems to be repeated in these 5 events? How similar is the pattern across the group?
Four of the events share in common that a Trump loyalist makes a connection with a Putin associate. But then what? It is not clear what Flynn did for the cash payments or the results of his meeting with the Ambassador. It is not clear that Sessions did anything in connection with his meeting with the Ambassador. What is clear is that both Flynn and Sessions lied about the contacts, suggesting that they were hiding something that was discussed and perhaps intended. J.D. Gordon seemed to help carry out the Russian wish to reduce an anti-Russia plank in the Republican platform. Roger Stone seemed to know something that only a person in Russian intelligence would have known, suggesting a communication between Gordon and someone who knew the details of the hacking. Trump publicly expressed his desire to have Russia help his election campaign when he called on Russia to help damage Clinton. In these public comments, he was not speaking to any specific person but was likely addressing Putin. In January, 2017, intelligence officials publicly released a declassified version of their findings, concluding that Putin had “aspired to help” Trump to win the election and harm Hillary Clinton. The basic pattern seems to be: A Trump loyalist meets with a Putin associate (Russian Ambassador Kislyak x3). In one instance, the GOP platform was changed perhaps as result. In another, the Trump man knew something only the Russians had known (Stone). In two instances (Sessions and Flynn) the consequences are not clear but the cover-up of the meetings suggests something substantive was discussed.
The probability of a serial coincidence is estimated by first estimating the base rate of each event. To determine the probability of the entire series, the base rates of each event are then multiplied. The lower the probability, the higher the suspicion that there is an underlying explanation. A White House spokesperson stated that suspicions about the meeting between Sessions and Ambassador Kislyak were “pretty unfair” given that Sessions’s senatorial duties, including membership in the Armed Services Committee, routinely put him in touch with diplomats. But a survey by The Washington Post of all 26 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee showed that Sessions was the only one to meet one-on-one with Kislyak in 2016. The Sessions-Kislyak meeting then had a base rate of 1/26 or about 4 percent. A direct call for interference in the election by a foreign power has never been made by an American presidential candidate. The base rate for this event is 1/45, or about 2 percent, since Trump is the 45th president.
Regarding Stone and his prediction about Podesta, what is the likelihood of an American knowing that Russia would dump emails about Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager? Pretty low. Regarding the pro-Russian change in the GOP platform, perhaps it was “just a coincidence” that the change followed Kislyak’s meetings with Sessions and with Gordon. The probability of the correlation is difficult to estimate.
The base rate for Flynn's acceptance of Russian cash in anticipation of his potential role in Trump administration is also difficult to estimate. We would need to know how often future cabinet level appointees had accepted cash from a foreign government. Multiplying the base rates of a Session-Kislyak meeting, Stone’s prediction of the Podesta email release, and Trump’s call for Russian interference yields a low probability for the entire series happening by chance.
In the summer of 2016 then CIA director Brennan Indicated “unnamed advisers to Mr.Trump” might be working with the Russians to alter the election. A key factor in the CIA analysis was that the selective release of Democratic material damaging to Clinton when the Russians had hacked Republican targets as well. Additionally, Trump and his associates had been doing business in Russia since the 1980s. Since much big business in Russia goes through Putin and his government, the tracks had been laid for possible influence on the election.
Common sense comes sometimes comes in the form of intuition. Intuitively, there appears to be a strong connection between Russian cyberattacks and other actions and the Trump campaign. Analysis of the coincidences supports the notion that there was collusion. Proper and thorough investigation is needed to confirm or refute the analysis of this coincidence series.