Russiagate is, essentially, a political corruption scandal. Sure, it’s a big, juicy, fascinating, disturbing corruption scandal, and in theory it should bring down Donald Trump’s presidency, even if that may be a pipe dream as long as Republicans control the Senate. But it’s just a corruption scandal. In our media culture, however, it has become so much more than that.
To some writers on the left, Russiagate is a 21st-century resurgence of McCarthyism (never mind that Vladimir Putin’s government is the furthest thing from communist, and that not one American leftist has been blacklisted over Russiagate). And for those bent on downplaying the scandal’s importance, every individual story can be dismissed in isolation as soon as it breaks. No one scoop ever proves the existence of a vast conspiracy, and there is always someone, somewhere, who is breathlessly overhyping the latest details, which means it’s easy enough to shrug the whole thing off again and again and to pretend readers aren’t capable of recognizing patterns or making inferences. At this point, believing that the many well-documented points of contact between the Trump campaign and Kremlin-connected Russians are a meaningless coincidence is as wild a conspiracy theory as anyone has advanced, but when has that ever gotten in the way of motivated reasoning?
Of course, those skeptics aren’t wrong in pointing out that breathless overhyping of Russiagate has been an irritating feature of the past two years, especially on cable news networks like MSNBC and on social media. A recent column in the Los Angeles Times by Virginia Heffernan neatly summarizes this tendency. Heffernan interviews Mother Jones reporter David Corn and rightly credits him for his many substantive Russiagate scoops, going back to 2016. She also, however, includes this absurd passage:
[…] while some media organizations sidelined, or cautiously framed, the Trump-Russia story, a much more important group of commenters were far less timid. Let’s give a round of retweets for the concerned citizens of the United States.
Take one look at Twitter: swelling numbers—initially thousands, then tens and perhaps even hundreds of thousands—gather now to raise their voices to undo Trump’s constant gaslighting about the Mueller investigation, which is decidedly not a witch hunt.
From all quarters, these citizens have kept the Trump-Russia story front and center for the electorate, and provided analysis and even scoops that clarify and help to remedy the global catastrophe that is Trump’s presidency.
Heffernan goes on to credit a number of Twitter personalities with retweeting “articles about the corruption of the president and Mueller’s heroism” and “initially us[ing] #resistance to corral their posts, and later a set of beloved Trump-Russia memes.” Never mind that not one of these personalities is responsible for advancing the story in any meaningful way; there are also countless examples of them getting things wrong, chasing dead ends, and in many cases indulging wild and cynical conspiracy theories that, if anything, bolster the White House’s lies by cluttering and undermining the truth. Even the more responsible among them can only be credited with reading reputable reporters and pithily summarizing what they read.
In reality, Russiagate has been the subject of intensive and sober reporting by every major news organization, some of which has earned Pulitzers (and some of which has fallen apart, as can happen with any complex story). The mainstream media’s failures in covering Russiagate while it was unfolding in the months before the 2016 election were real, but they were rooted in failures of our political system—above all, in Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s threat to politicize any public statement by President Obama outlining Russian interference, and Obama’s willingness to be cowed by McConnell rather than lending his credibility to the story when it might have made a difference. The media were thus forced to rely on anonymous leaks from the intelligence community to report on Russiagate. At the same time, most mainstream media companies hewed to an obsessive bothsidesism, which meant that it would be Donald Trump’s word against Hillary Clinton’s as to whether Russian interference was taking place, and that their respective partisans would believe whichever version they were told.
Some independent commentators have developed their own sources and have done deep, no-nonsense analysis of the scandal as well, most notably Marcy Wheeler, the brilliant, Grand Rapids–based national-security blogger who is probably the single most essential writer on Russiagate. But these tend to be the exceptions; in general, independent Russiagate sleuthing is best understood as a form of entertainment, not journalism.
A recent article in BuzzFeed by Katherine Miller gets at this dynamic well. Miller sees media coverage of the Mueller investigation as “the biggest internet fandom there’s ever been,” a sprawling prestige drama practically designed to encourage fan theories, some of which might even be true. This is also the implicit premise of Leon Neyfakh’s hit podcast Slow Burn, in which he carefully re-reports the Watergate and Clinton-Lewinsky scandals (Iran/Contra is next) in order to capture what it felt like to experience them in real time, with Russiagate always the unspoken but obvious point of comparison. Neyfakh captures the way enticing bits of information are released to the public over time, how difficult it can be to see the overall picture, and how much room these scandals leave to fill in one’s own preferred narrative.
But take a step back and none of this is as complicated as it seems. We know Russian agents made repeated overtures to Trump campaign officials at the same time that they were hacking the DNC’s e-mails (a digital-age version of the burglary at the heart of Watergate), up to and including the candidate’s immediate family; that no one reported these overtures to the authorities; and that multiple participants have lied to federal investigators. We know that Paul Manafort has pleaded guilty to federal crimes and repeatedly tried to undermine the investigation. We know that Trump has all but openly declared his efforts to obstruct justice. We know that Robert Mueller has patiently, strategically released indictments so as to box in Trump and his defenders and that this has only accelerated since Democrats won control of the House, which will allow them to launch serious and open-ended investigations. We know that the Trump Organization is basically an international money-laundering scheme, one that implicates many foreign governments and entities besides Russia.
The scandal has been staring us in the face since the day Trump asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s e-mails on national television. It doesn’t take a genius to see what happened. It does take a very stubborn kind of personality to deny it.