The publication of a House Republican memo alleging surveillance violations in the Russia probe has prompted President Trump to declare that he is “totally” vindicated. As many have pointed out, that is not true. While the memo makes a plausible case that a surveillance warrant of campaign volunteer Carter Page was obtained on questionable grounds, it also acknowledges that it was another campaign aide, George Papadopolous, who triggered the opening of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation three months earlier. Whether or not Page should have been monitored in the first place, the status of his surveillance warrant will not be what resolves this investigation.
That said, the memo is not necessarily the disaster for Trump and the Republicans that it is widely considered to be. Many of Trump’s political opponents remain tethered to the eventual emergence of proof that his campaign colluded with the Russian government in order to win the presidency. But the evidentiary basis so far for Russiagate is thin, to say the least. Meanwhile, the relentless pursuit of this narrative above all else has had dangerous consequences.
The Curious Cast
As high-level officials and investigators have repeatedly acknowledged, there is still no evidence so far of coordination between the Trump orbit and the Russian government over the release of stolen e-mails or any other campaign matter. There is only a curious cast of characters that makes for an unlikely conspiracy.
At a London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos reportedly told an Australian diplomat that that the Russian government had damaging information on Hillary Clinton. In his plea document, Papadopoulos says that an obscure professor, Joseph Mifsud, had told him that “the Russians” had obtained “thousands of emails” containing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Mifsud has denied making the claim. The Washington Post noted that, had the Trump campaign “undertaken even a cursory vetting of Papadopoulos” before hiring him, “they would have found that much of his already-slim résumé was either exaggerated or false.” But if Papadopoulos is telling the truth about Mifsud, it is quite possible that the professor had similar qualities. By April 2016, the time of Mifsud’s alleged statement, the controversy over Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server was already three years old.
It is possible that Mifsud was using a public talking point to impress his American intermediary for the purpose of career advancement. Indeed, he even pitched himself as a Trump campaign surrogate, proposing to “write op-eds under the guise of a ‘neutral’ observer…and follow Mr. Trump to his rallies as an accredited journalist while receiving briefings from the inside the campaign.”
The other rendezvous that fuels collusion speculation is the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower arranged by Rob Goldstone between a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and top campaign members. Goldstone, a former tabloid journalist turned music publicist with a proclivity for funny hats, informed Trump Jr. that Veselnitskaya had incriminating information on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Often ignored is what information Goldstone said was on offer: “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.” While Mifsud’s purported overture to Papadopoulos at least made mention of stolen e-mails, Goldstone floated something totally different—and on its face immaterial to the election results, since the embarrassing disclosures that supposedly damaged Clinton’s campaign have nothing to do with “her dealings with Russia.”
Furthermore, as NBC News notes, “no evidence has emerged publicly to contradict Veselnitskaya’s account that she wanted to press a case about U.S. Magnitsky Act sanctions, and that she did not possess significant derogatory information about Clinton,” notwithstanding Goldstone’s pitch. “Moreover, no evidence has emerged publicly that connects the Russians in the meeting with the Russian intelligence effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”
Neither “Proven nor Disproven”
Both scenarios also call into question another foundation of Russiagate, the series of Clinton-campaign-funded intelligence reports written by former British spy Christopher Steele. The premise of the Steele dossier is of a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” in which Russia has been “cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years,” beginning back when Trump was hosting The Apprentice. Russia gives Trump “and his inner circle…a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” As an insurance policy, Steele contends, at least two years after their conspiracy began, the Russians collected a videotape of Trump hiring and watching prostitutes “perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show,” in a Moscow Ritz-Carlton hotel room.
This questionable narrative is perhaps why, according to the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, after one year and multiple investigations, the dossier’s allegations remain neither “proven nor, conversely, disproven”—in other words, not proven. According to Fox News, “when pressed [in recent congressional testimony] to identify what in the salacious document the bureau had actually corroborated…[then–FBI Deputy Director Andrew] McCabe cited only the fact that Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had traveled to Moscow.” It would not have been difficult for the FBI—or Steele—to figure that out, given that it was reported in The Washington Post and Russian media in early July. (Steele reports it only on July 19.)
The shaky evidentiary basis for collusion extends to Russiagate’s other central pillars. It has been over a year since the release, shortly before Trump’s inauguration, of a US intelligence report alleging a Russian-government campaign to elect Trump through e-mail hacking and covert propaganda. Amid the ensuing uproar, some quietly noted at the time that the public version of the report “does not or cannot provide evidence for its assertions” (The Atlantic); contained “essentially no new information” (Susan Hennessy, Lawfare); and was “missing…what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims” (The New York Times).
If “hard evidence” is what “many Americans most eagerly anticipated” in January 2017, they have continued to wait in vain. The Russian government may well have hacked Democratic Party e-mails, but evidence of it beyond unsubstantiated claims has yet to arrive.
In its place is a bipartisan fearmongering campaign that recalls the height of the Cold War. The nation is said to face “an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process” (Democrats Representative Adam Schiff and Senator Dianne Feinstein); in which “Russia continues…to disseminate propaganda designed to weaken our nation” (former acting CIA director Michael Morell and former Republican Representative Mike Rogers); which means that we cannot “simply sit back and hope that we do not face another attack by a hostile foreign power” (Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen).
A credulous national media has helped disseminate the panic. When news of Russian-linked Facebook ads (in reality, Russian troll farms) broke open, The Daily Beast calculated that the “Russian-funded covert propaganda posts…were likely seen by a minimum of 23 million people and might have reached as many as 70 million,” meaning that “up to 28 percent of American adults were swept in by the campaign.” National audiences were soberly informed of covert Russian attempts to dupe them via Pokemon Go. CNN reported—and multiple outlets repeated—that “highly sophisticated” Russian Facebook ads targeted “the states that turned out to be pivotal,” including “Michigan and Wisconsin, two states crucial to Donald Trump’s victory last November.” The New York Times consulted with “analysts” to ponder over the mysterious significance of a Russian-linked “Facebook group for animal lovers with memes of adorable puppies”:
The goal of the dog lovers’ page was more obscure. But some analysts suggested a possible motive: to build a large following before gradually introducing political content. Without viewing the entire feed from the page, now closed by Facebook, it is impossible to say whether the Russian operators tried such tactics.
We may never know if vulnerable American dog-lovers were compromised by the Russian puppy-gandists. But “analysis” and “exclusives” like these have drowned out the actual evidence. In brief, more than half of the relatively paltry $100,000 in Facebook ads bought by “Russian-linked” accounts ran after the election. They were mostly related not to the election but to social issues and were often juvenile and written in broken English. Those that were “geographically located” came mostly during the primaries. The ads that ran in battleground states were, as one study noted, “microscopic”: Fewer than a dozen ran in Michigan and Wisconsin combined, and the majority were seen fewer than 1,000 times. Purported Russian ad spending amounted to $1,979 in Wisconsin—all but $54 of that during the primary—$823 in Michigan, and $300 in Pennsylvania.
Summarizing available data, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump concludes: “what we actually know about the Russian activity on Facebook and Twitter: It was often modest, heavily dissociated from the campaign itself and minute in the context of election social media efforts.”
“Theories With Virtually No Fact”
The impact of Russiagate panic has been magnified by a preponderance of influential exponents wading into imaginative territory. And their audience happens to be millions of people aggrieved by Trump’s presidency and seeking hope that it can be reversed.
Rachel Maddow, the top-rated cable-news host who covers Russiagate more than all other issues combined, has speculated that Putin was responsible for the hiring of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; is inducing Trump to “weaken” the State Department and “bleed out” the FBI; and, via the infamous “pee tape” alleged by Steele, may blackmail Trump into withdrawing US forces near Russia’s border.
The Russian influence theory is so ingrained that Democrats see no irony in invoking it to dismiss the conspiracy theories of Republicans. Denouncing the current right-wing uproar over alleged anti-Trump bias at the FBI, Senator Chuck Schumer cautioned that in pushing “conspiracy theories with virtually no fact,” the Republicans “wittingly or unwittingly are acting as allies of Russia’s disinformation campaigns,” ultimately “playing right into Putin’s hands.”
Such is our Trump-era political spectrum: a Republican Party that has graduated from birtherism to now pushing fears of an anti-Trump FBI “secret society,” versus a Democratic Party whose counterattack is to accuse its foes of doing Putin’s bidding.
While Trump ascended to the White House with open xenophobia and “America First” chauvinism, the perception he did so with Russia’s help has fueled a brand of xenophobia and chauvinism of its own. Prominent outlets explore the alarming phenomenon of Russian anchor babies. Liberal pundits decry Trump’s reliance on “Soviet propaganda outlets,” and wonder if Trump-friendly Republican lawmakers are being blackmailed with hacked Russian e-mails or are even a directly working as a “Russian agent.” In the inaugural ad for the Committee to Investigate Russia, an alliance of Hollywood liberals and Washington neoconservatives, the actor Morgan Freeman informs the nation that “We have been attacked. We are at war.” Echoing Trump’s catchphrase, Democrat Ron Wyden, known as one of the Senate’s most liberal members, declares: “With the current fascist leadership of Russia enthusiastically undermining our democracy, America must defend the values that made us great.”
The media has also found common ground. Before “Make America Great Again,” on the campaign, Trump was synonymous with another defining catchphrase on network reality television: “You’re fired.” Now that he’s in the White House, a top preoccupation for the news outlets that cover him is speculation over whom he may fire next.
Russiagate and its Consequences
One consequence of the Trump-Russia fixation is the overshadowing of the far-right agenda that Trump and his Republican allies are carrying out, including, inexorably, policies that undermine the narrative of Trump-Russian collusion. But as that narrative is also used as a cudgel against Trump’s presidency, it is worth asking if some of those policies are now even a direct result.
In December, Trump authorized the sale of new weapons to Ukraine for its fight against Russian-backed separatists. President Obama had rejected the arms shipments, “fearing that it would only escalate the bloodshed,” as The New York Times noted in 2015. Trump had also opposed such a move during the campaign, but was swayed by lobbying from advisers and congressional neoconservatives. “Overall,” observed Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “I see this discussion [on Trump-Russia] as fitting within a broader effort by people within the national security bureaucracy to box Trump in on Ukraine.”
The new weapons for Ukraine coincides with an increase in US troop deployments in the Baltic region on Russia’s border, prompting Russia to accuse the United States of violating the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, and position nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in response.
As it ramps up its armed presence near Russia, the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy declares that the US military advantage over Russia and China is “eroding,” and that reversing it is now more of a priority than stopping ISIS or Al Qaeda. “Great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Defense Secretary James Mattis declared. Russia is the top threat invoked in Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review. The plan’s centerpiece is the development of smaller, so-called “low-yield” nuclear weapons, small enough to ensure that Russia fears their actual use. The review attributes this to the “deterioration of the strategic environment”—“a nod toward existing tensions with Russia in particular,” The Washington Post observes.
Tensions between the world’s two major nuclear powers have helped lead the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move its Doomsday Clock to its highest point since 1953. “Nuclear risks have been compounded by US-Russia relations that now feature more conflict than cooperation,” the Bulletin warns. “Coordination on nuclear risk reduction is all but dead.… For the first time in many years, in fact, no US-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations are under way.”
The nuclear risks may also be compounded by a US opposition party that has made “more conflict than cooperation” a defining trait. “Never before has a U.S. president so clearly ignored such a grave threat, and a growing threat, to U.S. national security,” declares Senator Ben Cardin. In not imposing new sanctions, Trump has “let Russia off the hook yet again,” says Representative Eliot Engel. In releasing the House Republican memo, Trump has “Vladimir Putin there smiling…like he gave Donald Trump the script” (Representative Jackie Speier) and has “just sent his friend Putin a bouquet” (Representative Nancy Pelosi). It is difficult to imagine Democrats leading the charge to reduce nuclear tensions with Russia when they expend more energy urging Trump to be confrontational.
With Trump’s actual Russia policies receiving less attention than Russiagate, it also makes sense that his administration has begun to take advantage of the opportunities that the distraction provides. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has warned that there are “initial signs” of Russian “subversion and disinformation and propaganda” in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election. McMaster did not cite any evidence, but perhaps he had in mind the multiple polls that show leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador as the front-runner so far.
The focus on still-absent evidence of Trump-Russia collusion while ignoring increasing US-Russia tensions coincides with the indifference that has greeted the most concrete case of Trump collusion with a foreign government so far: the Trump transition’s effort to undermine President Obama’s abstention on a United Nations Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements in December 2016. Undertaken at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “derailing the vote was Mr. Trump’s top priority at that time,” The Wall Street Journal reports.
But for Democrats and thought leaders to oppose the Trump transition’s “top priority” would mean challenging one that they uphold. “While [the UN effort] might have otherwise given the Democrats a welcome political opportunity to underscore the perfidy of the Trump team,” Stephen Zunes observes, “they are hindered by the fact that the majority of Congressional Democrats opposed Obama and supported Trump’s position on the vote.”
It is here that Russiagate performs a critical function for Trump’s political foes. Far beyond Israelgate, Russiagate allows them to oppose Trump while obscuring key areas where they either share his priorities or have no viable alternative. Democrats can claim to be Trump’s opposition without having to confront many of the failings that handed them one of the most stunning defeats in US political history.
In focusing on a foreign villain, there is also little need for Democrats to challenge the powerful sectors of US society that many Trump voters were duped into thinking that they were voting against—and whose interests many Democrats have deftly served. In fact, the outside enemy offers Democrats new opportunities to cater to powerful donors: increased militarism towards a nuclear power is a boon for the military-security establishment, and lawmakers who promote it have been duly rewarded.
Less understandable is how Democrats and partisan media outlets can continue to prioritize Russiagate over factors that likely cost their party far more votes than any stolen e-mails or Facebook ads: gerrymandering, voter suppression, declining unionization, exhaustive Trump media coverage, and the unregulated, worsening “dark-money” takeover of political campaigns. Or any number of domestic outrages around which large segments of the population, not just liberals, could be mobilized.
After more than one year of its engulfing our politics, perhaps that could be Russiagate’s most helpful contribution: guiding us to the challenges that it helps us avoid.