How the Trump-Russia story was buried
The story hits the blind spots of practically every American political faction
The biggest political story of 2016-19 was largely wrapped up this August, and it only made a blip in the news. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) published the final volume of its enormous investigation into how the Russian government influenced the 2016 election, this time focusing on how the Trump campaign was involved (what has become known as "Russiagate"). Remarkably, the committee is led by Republicans due to their Senate majority — a reasonable sign it was a credible investigation. Since then, there has been a steady drip of reporting about Russia's apparent effort to influence this year's election, like President Trump's own Treasury Department sanctioning a Ukrainian friend of Rudy Giuliani for allegedly doing just that.
This volume of the report is nearly 1,000 pages long, but at bottom the story is pretty simple. Essentially, the suspicion your average ordinary liberal had from the start was correct. The Trump campaign did conspire in secret (as well as openly) with Russian intelligence. The Trump campaign knew Russia was behind the email hacking of Hillary Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee, and very likely coordinated with WikiLeaks about the emails being dribbled out in a fashion calculated to inflict maximum damage to Clinton.
It's peculiar that the resolution of this story — which dominated front pages for months on end — has not gotten more attention. Part of the explanation, no doubt, is the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing economic crisis, and looming election. But another is how the Russiagate story hits the blind spots of practically every American political faction. Many liberals and conservatives succumbed to paranoia about the story, while many leftists took that paranoia as proof the story was nothing. So it was buried.
But first, the details of this latest report. SSCI found that Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort (who was convicted of multiple counts of bank and tax fraud as part of the Mueller investigation), was in regular contact with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian intelligence agent. Manafort gave him regular updates of confidential Trump campaign information, including polling and strategy details. Kilimnik was likely part of the Russian hacking effort, and he was also in close connection with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a Putin ally who has been involved in election influence schemes in other countries, as well as the effort to shift blame away from Russia for the 2016 hack.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks (which distributed the hacked emails) "actively sought, and played, a key role in the Russian influence campaign and very likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort," the report states. The Trump campaign was aware multiple sources had attributed the hack to Russia, and "sought to obtain advance information about WikiLeaks's planned releases through Roger Stone," who did indeed reach out to WikiLeaks privately. Though SSCI could not confirm Stone actually delivered any non-public information, "Trump and the campaign believed that Stone had inside information and expressed satisfaction that Stone's information suggested more releases would be forthcoming."
In sum, the Trump campaign worked with the right-wing authoritarian government of Russia, which illegally stole private communications and leveraged them to corrupt the democratic process by tricking the American people about which candidate was more corrupt. The "emails" story got more front-page New York Times coverage in six days than all policy topics combined got in 69 days — drowning out coverage of the dozen-plus far worse Trump corruption stories.
These conclusions add details and certainty to the report published by Special Counsel Robert Mueller back in 2019, which found multiple instances of Trump at least attempting (and arguably succeeding) to obstruct the investigation, and related other meetings Trump campaign operatives had with Russian intelligence, but did not complete the Kilimnik story, nor confirm the Stone back channel.
Recall that before the Mueller report was made public, Attorney General (and shameless Trump stooge) William Barr lied through his teeth about what it said. And wouldn't you know it, new reporting also calls into question another aspect of the Mueller report that supposedly exonerated Trump — that his investigators found no direct connection between the president and Russia. Michael Schmidt of The New York Times reports that in 2017, then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein instructed Mueller not to directly investigate Trump's ties with Russia. Rosenstein also did not tell the FBI brass, which had opened its own investigation, that he did this. In other words, Mueller found no direct connection between Trump and Russia because he was instructed not to look into it.
There are still some missing pieces to the story (and the SSCI report has many redactions), but the basic outline of the story is there for those with eyes to see.
In retrospect, we can see how the Russiagate story unfortunately played into the biases of various political factions. The neocon #NeverTrump center-right naturally found it most compelling, with its Cold War bad guy. They folded the Russia story into their broader politics, arguing that this proved Trump was weak on national security and what America needs is to stand up to Vladimir Putin. "The Trump presidency’s connections to Russia are a national-security issue first, a criminal-justice issue only second," as David Frum wrote at The Atlantic in 2018. But this stance plainly does not play well in a country that is ever-more exhausted with war and wary of international conflicts. Given the lack of appetite for a confrontation with Russia, the neocons have resigned themselves to political defeat, at least for the moment.
The center-left also found the story appealing at first, and gave rapt coverage to every twist and turn of the Mueller investigation. Some of them, like anonymous business consultant turned #Resistance Twitter celebrity Eric Garland, went completely off the deep end over it, while others like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow allowed it to displace coverage of practically every other story for a time. Others have written hyperbolic stories about Russian spying, like a recent Daily Beast article that trumps up a Russian "infiltration" operation of left-wing magazines that amounted to a garbled unsolicited pitch. But even among relatively sensible commentators and politicians there was a hopeful expectation that Mueller would be the one to nail Trump, thereby excusing the Democratic leadership from having to do politics. If all the loyal Republican patriots in the national security bureaucracy could bring Trump down for treason, then the republic could be saved without Democrats having to beat the GOP in the political arena.
Alas, it was not to be. Multiple people in the Trump orbit did indeed get charged and convicted of crimes, but Trump has already commuted the sentence of WikiLeaks back channel Roger Stone, is signaling that other pardons will probably come, and he himself has skated on any accountability. Once it became clear that Mueller was not allowed to indict Trump despite his findings of very likely obstruction of justice, and that absolutely nothing could convince Senate Republicans to vote to remove him from office after he was impeached, the center-left largely gave up on the story too.
All that said, elements of the left bungled the story worse than either of the previous two factions. The fact that neocons and the center-left were agreeing about something set off instinctive warning bells — and rightly so, because that often signals something terrible, like on October 10, 2002. It also seemed, again probably rightly, that the Democrats and the Clinton campaign were attempting to excuse their abysmal 2016 performance by blaming the loss on Russia. It wasn't our grossly unpopular candidate or her data whiz advisers deciding not to campaign in swing states that did it — it was dastardly foreigners!
All those were important caveats to keep in mind. But they were no excuse to simply not examine the details of such a big story, much less baldly misrepresent them. Yet that is precisely what many ostensibly lefty voices have done. People like The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald and independent writers Michael Tracey and Matt Taibbi seized on every failed liberal prediction to cast doubt on the overall story. When leaks emerged reporting that Mueller’s investigation was completed with no new prosecutions, Taibbi concluded: "It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD." Then, when Barr released his lying summary of the Mueller report, they swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, gleefully declared victory, and concluded the whole thing was garbage. The summary proved the whole thing was "unhinged conspiratorial trash," wrote Greenwald. A "roughly 33-month national ordeal" is over, wrote Taibbi. Tracey — perhaps the most tendentious #Slatepitch contrarian writing today — had clockwork outbreaks of shrieking hysterics online for weeks over how "disgusting media scumbags" had perpetuated "a deranged 3-year hoax."
Naturally, since the SSCI report came out weeks ago, none of them have updated their views, or indeed written a single word about it that I can find.
Incidentally, this is an important lesson in how propaganda works. Taking a hard look at the evidence in a complicated story and coming to a measured conclusion with all the proper caveats is tedious and boring. Seizing on a convenient half- or quarter- or twentieth-truth, or straight-up falsehood, and loudly repeating it 10 million times sticks in people's minds. It works even better if you take that wrong belief, declare it to be proved beyond any question 10 million more times, and start furiously demanding recriminations from people who disagree with you.
Thus, through a sustained campaign of ideological battering, Russiagate basically became a non-story on the left. People either came to believe that it was all nonsense, or they got so fed up with arguing with aggressive bad-faith B.S. that they figured it wasn't worth the bother. It was particularly jarring coming from Greenwald, who wrote an entire book back in 2011 about elite impunity with an extensive discussion about the Iran-Contra coverup — in which Barr was a central player. But when it was convenient to believe so, suddenly Barr was a reliable source.
Moreover, this stance was pretty much exactly what Trump himself and his corrupt cronies said about the story.
So, with moderate factions either way out over their skis or losing interest in the story, and the far right and some on the left agreeing it was not even real, the mainstream press largely lost interest as well. The SSCI report did get coverage, but it was largely perfunctory — wondering if voters would care about the story at all.
The fact that a literally murderous right-wing autocrat meddled in the American political system and is very probably doing so again is a genuinely difficult analytical challenge. On the one hand, the neocons are wrong in their conclusions. Aggressive confrontation with Putin is half the reason the U.S. got into this mess in the first place, and what the U.S. needs above all right now is de-escalation and diplomacy, especially given how tensions have ratcheted up between American and Russian forces on the ground in various places (apparently over disputes regarding control of Syria).
But on the other hand, the left contrarians are also wrong. This is not a fake, overhyped story — on the contrary, it's one of the biggest stories of political corruption and white-collar criminality in decades, and should by rights be towards the top of the Trump administration's very long list of crimes.
Finally, contrary to the hopes of the center-left, Trump will not be held to account by a Senate committee or law enforcement agencies on their own. The only way for it to happen at this point is for Joe Biden to win the presidency and then commit to exercising his power to make it happen. Greenwald was right about elite impunity in 2011 (as was Taibbi when he wrote a similar book in 2014). It was a terrible mistake for President Obama to sweep all the Bush administration's torture crimes under the rug, and doing so again with Trump's record might well doom America's democratic institutions. When people in power get away with crimes, sooner or later outright criminals will get into high office and start stealing elections.
Biden is probably going to resist seriously investigating Trump. It would help encourage him if all Americans in favor of the rule of law could agree that his crimes are, in fact, crimes, even if it means momentarily agreeing with some MSNBC liberals.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the timing of Matt Taibbi's comparison of Russiagate to WMDs. The article also originally mischaracterized Deripaska's connection to the 2016 hack. Both mistakes have been corrected. The Week regrets the errors.