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Russiagate was journalist QAnon (Part 1)
The Mueller report reveals: three years of news coverage was insane conspiracy theory (Untitledgate preface)
Note to readers: call this a two-part preface to Untitledgate. Chapter One, coming soon, is about the origins of the investigation, but I thought it made sense to go through the Mueller report now that’s out. Some conclusions follow.
Most every reporter and editor with profile was recalled to man barricades on the morning of April the 18th,* and await the bombshell of bombshells.
Every broadcast and cable station, major newspaper, and online outlet went into crash mode, an old-school newsroom drama in which every employee coffees up to deliver nonstop marathon content about the Most Important Story In History.
Will the Anchorman panda finally give birth? Will Baby Jessica come up alive after 56 hours down a well? Could there be sounds of life inside the sunken Kursk?
More recently: did America’s entire “respectable” news media really spend 22-plus months humping a transparent conspiracy theory, praying out loud for a former FBI chief to save them from Donald Trump, like cultists awaiting passage to Heaven’s Gate on the Hale-Bopp Comet?
Cable hosts took places on extra-large sets to await the sacred document. It would pass judgment on Trump, validate years of fulminating coverage, and grant permission to leave Classroom Earth and graduate the Human Evolutionary Level.
CNN featured a preposterous eight-person panel, whose members were furious in advance. Commentators had been in full rage mode since March 24th, when evil always-liar and Attorney General Bill Barr (who in a narrative inconvenience has been close friends with St. Robert Mueller for 30 years) sent a brief letter to Congress dashing hopes for a Presidency-ending conspiracy.
That the so-called “Barr letter” was a “fake” and a treacherous lie – “meaningless” as Joe Scarborough put it – was accepted without question across commercial media. It was deemed a political document and delaying tactic, designed to give Trump fans time to spin things before the real truth came out.
The emotion charging the CNN panel the morning of the 18th was a thing to behold. Professional media figures – whose job is keeping a cool head in war zones, natural disaster areas, shootings of school children, and other horrific scenes – were visibly shaken, overcome with a mix of hopeful anticipation and pre-emptive outrage.
They were furious Barr even planned a press conference, angry about redactions they hadn’t yet seen, and even seething over improprieties they hadn’t the slightest indication had or would occur, like Trump or Barr asserting executive privilege.
“Here’s the important thing about – about what we don’t know,” snapped Laura Coates, CNN’s legal analyst, on the privilege subject.
“We know his personal view, though,” said anchor John King. “We know Bill Barr’s personal view on a very strong, executive power.”
“Very strong,” said senior political analyst Gloria Borger.
“Very strong,” agreed correspondent Dana Bash, because you can never have too many people on a cable news set agreeing about something that in just a few minutes will turn out to be wrong.
They went on to speculate that Trump or Barr might try to assert executive privilege over campaign-era actions. Coates insisted Barr “better be able to explain” if he was planning to do that.
“Cory Booker couldn’t now claim executive privilege, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, they’re not the president of the United States,” she declaimed.
Over on MSNBC, “Morning Joe” Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist were in full spleen over Barr’s decision to hold a presser before the release of the report, instead of after. It prompted Scarborough to re-think the framework of executive government. “It seems bizarre at this point the President should get to pick his own Attorney General,” he said solemnly.
The whole scene was a microcosm of the last years of coverage: unhinged speculation, a flailing, openly accusatory posture, maximally evil motives ascribed to insignificant actions, lockstep agreement on everything (especially the limitless treason of the president), no allowance for the possibility of gray areas, hostility toward the mere suggestion that the Mueller investigation might reveal Trump and his campaign staffers to be innocent, not even of everything, but just some things.
Reporters are supposed to be more curious than invested. That’s why a lot of us went into this line of work, because we share that personality quirk. A politician you long admired has been caught capturing and eating hitchhikers? Interesting! The antiwar pol you’ve known for years was spotted at a Lockheed-Martin office party, then voted to reauthorize the F-35? Doesn’t sound right, but let’s check. Part of the job is to never care enough to be certain of anything, at least not during business hours.
The defining characteristic of the Russiagate press corps was certainty. It knew everything in advance, and whenever it turned out to be wrong, it just moved to the next thing it knew. On the morning of the 18th, for instance, before the report came out, we learned executive privilege was never asserted. So long to another controversy that never was.
They moved to the next certainty: the full report would prove years of suspicions true, validating all that pent-up emotion.
“I’m sure everyone is eagerly hitting the refresh button on the Department of Justice Web site,” gushed CNN senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown. “At this point, we’re all just very anxious to start reading.”
They were ready to shed their containers. They’d been ready for years.
Then the report came out.
Let’s start with what isn’t in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report on The Investigation Into Russian Interference In the 2016 Presidential Election:
There’s no blackmail, no plan by Vladimir Putin of “at least five years” to cultivate Donald Trump, no hundred-million-dollar bribe offered by Rosneft chief Igor Sechin to Carter Page, and no “regular exchange” of intelligence between Russia and Trump, who according to British ex-super spy Christopher Steele had been informing on Russian oligarchs’ activities in America, for Putin, dating back at least “8 years.”
There is also no trip to Prague by Trump lawyer Michael Cohen; no quid pro quo of any kind, no Trump “sidelining Russian intervention in Ukraine” as a campaign issue in exchange for DNC leaks; no “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between Russia and the Trump campaign using Page and others as intermediaries; and no “extensive sexual services from [Russian] prostitutes.”
The pee tape does get a mention in the Mueller report. It’s footnote 1395, and describes businessman Giorgi Rtskhiladze telling Cohen he’d “stopped the flow of tapes,” later insisting to investigators the “compromising tapes” were fake. But that’s it. On these and other questions relevant to the dominant conspiracy theory of the last three years, the Mueller report is curt and definitive.
There will be a massive PR effort insisting the “real story” all along was some combination of Russian interference and/or obstruction of justice. Of course there is a ton in the report that is disturbing, and if you’re a Trump fan, which I’m not and never have been, it’s even possible that some of the material Mueller describes will shock you. The Donald Trump described in this report is pretty much the character we’ve come to know pretty well: a needy, vacillating, ignoramus, clearly so used to life at the top of private-sector organizations that he can’t understand the concept of behavioral constraints like the law. Over and over he says things no politician with sense would say, demanding “loyalty” from an FBI director as a criminal scandal swirls around him, moaning to his Attorney General, “How could you let this happen, Jeff?” and, “You were supposed to protect me!” At first blush the most damning passage from a legal perspective involves a directive to White House Counsel Don McGahn:
On June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn at home and directed him to call the Acting Attorney General and say that the Special Counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed.
It seems in actual conversation Trump said to McGahn, “Call Rod [Rosenstein], tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel.” Later, after a New York Times story reporting on his order to McGahn came out, Trump asked McGahn “to create a record to make clear the president never directed McGahn to fire the Special Counsel.” As Mueller concluded, this was not any kind ofpress strategy, but “likely contemplated the ongoing investigation and any proceedings arising from it,” i.e. for the purposes of creating a false record for investigators.
In any case, when McGahn pushed back on the idea of creating a fake record, Trump played a card straight out of elementary school. “I never said ‘fire,’” he said. “Did I say the word ‘fire’?” (Trump will not be the only character in this story to resort to this tactic). All of this of course directly contradicts what Trump said publicly about that account: “Fake news, folks. Fake news. A typical New York Times fake news story.”
In any other context (and probably with any other president), this would surely be obstruction of justice. Who knows, it may still be, technically. However, I could probably sit down and list a thousand things Trump has done or said that are more scandalous than this, especially since, as Mueller put it, there was no evidence of an “underlying crime.” Mueller’s decision to punt the obstruction question to Barr, knowing he wouldn’t pursue it, seems to speak powerfully to his assessment of the rest of this story, or non-story as it were. Trump had to be not guilty of “underlying crime” almost to the point of absurdity for Mueller, who was pretty exacting with other characters in this tableau, to stand down on the obstructive behavior (and there was a lot more of it).
An impeachment of Trump for obstructing an investigation into a non-existent crime — probably the first public scandal of his life in which he’s been genuinely innocent — would be the most 2019 America thing ever, although it seems unlikely. What’s more predictable is a parade of outraged media figures pointing to this section of the report and insisting Mueller’s portrait of Trump validates the last three years of insanity.
They’ll be asking us to ignore the fact that that the subtext of thousands of news stories dating back 22 months (buttressed by another 11 months or so of pre-Mueller stories) was a prophetic religion based on two core beliefs, both now clearly proven false.
The first was Trump being guilty of “collusion.” This was a word blue-staters liked well enough when it was in the title of two different unreadable instant-ramen New York Times bestsellers, and when it was being mentioned 10,000 times a day on channels like CNN and MSNBC. “The picture of Russian collusion is coming into focus now!” crowed Chris Matthews last fall, in a typical Trump Watch segment (which might as well have been called End of Trump Watch).
That was back when “collusion” referred to the certain misdeeds of a traitorous soon-to-be-ex-President. Once Trump was pronounced cleared of “collusion” by the hated Barr, mainstream outlets did a 180, denouncing the term’s very use.
The New York Times even gave space to a former FBI agent (who else?) the day after the release of the Mueller report to explain. Special Agent Asha Rangappa’s op-ed, which of course featured a hammer and sickle graphic, said Barr’s conflation of “collusion” with “conspiracy” was a textbook example of a known Russian “information warfare” tactic called “reflexive control.”
In a flash, saying there was no collusion became not just wrong, but Russian information warfare. Apparently, the just-released news that there never was a conspiracy didn’t take — even Bill Barr’s press conferences were Russian ops. The ex-FBI editorialist went on, in the pages of a paper that just spent the better part of three years spoon-feeding audiences a fake story, to un-ironically describe “reflexive control” as “feed[ing] your adversary a set of assumptions that will produce a predictable response.”
If pillar one of the Mueller’s Gate faith was Trump’s criminal guilt in some kind of plot with Russia, pillar two was Mueller inevitably revealing the conspiracy. He would uncover the secret levers Russians surely held on the President. Then, through impeachment or forced resignation, St. Bob would remove the usurper from the throne.
This theme was reinforced through years of hyperventilating coverage telling audiences the “walls are closing in,” that we’d hit “turning point” after “turning point” in the investigation (sometimes we were warned of “tipping points”), which meant “the beginning of the end,” with Trump certain either to resign in shame, Nixon-style, or be impeached.
All of it was buttressed by elaborate fantasies, offered week after week, by some of the country’s most prominent editorialists.
Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, an industrious repeater-of-thoughts and breathless sycophant of the sort that in banana autocracies wins tin medals by the dozen, even went on MSNBC this past December to predict Trump will “resign the Presidency 10 minutes before [Mike] Pence leaves office, allowing Pence to pardon him.”
My former employer Keith Olbermann early on brayed “we are no longer a sovereign nation, we are no longer a democracy!” because we’d been taken over in a “bloodless coup,” in which the military was about to be handed over to “scum, beholden to Russian scum!”
A cheerier Olbermann later told us Trump would resign “suddenly,” noting GOP operatives believed Trump would leave office “once Mueller closes in on him and his family.” Former Watergate attorney Andrew Hall said Trump would “undoubtedly be impeached.” Scarborough even dragged out Spiro Agnew’s lawyer to tell us Trump should “consider resigning.”
Politico published “The Only Impeachment Guide You’ll Ever Need” just this January, as “talk of the I-word” supposedly was “heating up.” Infamously, former CIA chief John Brennan was on TV predicting indictments of family members by the Special Counsel just weeks before Mueller formally wrapped up. The fantasy went on right up until the Barr letter, and beyond.
No matter what you think of Trump or his behavior as described in the Mueller report, it can’t be overstated that these concrete predictions about devastating judgments Mueller would surely render have been proven wrong, all of them. It’s a particularly cynical and irresponsible kind of reporting, artificially raising expectations and exploiting audiences desperate to see Trump gone. All those “walls are closing in” hot takes contributed to MSNBC’s amazing ratings surge last year, and the most-watched show on cable was the one that hyped this theme the most — The Rachel Maddow Show. Click here to see Rachel mention “Russia” 81 (I think, at least) times in a single broadcast.
Even when there was no news, we were told to squint until we saw some. We were told “Mueller always knows more than we think,” and if he wasn’t showing evidence, it couldn’t possibly be because it was lacking. No, it had to be Mueller keeping it in reserve, so as to turn the knife more painfully in the end. “If you have something to hide,” said Paula Reid of CBS, “Mueller’s ability to keep his cards close to his vest should make you nervous.”
If you want a devastating example of where all this led, just watch Joy Behar’s infamous “premature evaluation” scene on The View, in which the host freaked out over an incorrect Russiagate story. Is The View news media? No, obviously not, but the episode was a powerful indictment of other outlets, not that show.
On December 3, 2017, a man ran on the View set and handed Behar a cue card, whispering, breaking news. “Oh, my God!” she exclaimed. Devouring the copy, she read out:
ABC News Brian Ross is reporting Michael Flynn is promising full cooperation to the Mueller team and is prepared to testify that as a candidate, Donald Trump directed him to... make contact with the Russians! Yes!
Behar’s voice soared as she delivered the words with the Russians!, and she threw her card in the air in joy.
The shame here was not Behar’s goofiness, but that The View’s audience was so primed with expectation for Trump’s downfall that it knew to cheer and howl along with her. With any other news story, you’d expect half the audience to either not care or be ignorant of the particulars. But this whole audience was ready to launch.
That’s not on Ross, but on a media and pop culture machine that spent years filling heads with a deliverance fantasy. MUELLER IS COMING didn’t just become a marketing phenomenon (I wonder which charity organization is going to be stuck with all of these now-worthless t-shirts, especially the ones showing St. Bob on the Iron Throne).
It was also either a literal or implied tagline for countless serious investigative articles and TV spots insisting the end was near, because “Mueller’s got Trump on Collusion,” and “Trump can do nothing to stop him.”
The Mueller report does not merely say this fantasy is not true. It smashes it to pieces, exposing the mass psychogenic illness of the last few years as the work of amateur cops in the press either connecting “dots” they shouldn’t have, or letting unnamed official sources do it for them.
Of course Mueller himself had a role in this, since the report makes clear he must have known collusion was a canard pretty early, but that’s a for-later topic.
Blackmail? Forget “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated” with the Russian government “in its election interference activities.” The telling sentence came under, “Immediate Post-Election Activity,” describing Russian attempts to reach the new administration (emphasis mine):
They appeared not to have preexisting contacts and struggled to connect with senior officials around the President-Elect.
We just spent years speculating Trump was a literal agent of the Russian state, “wholly in the pocket of Putin,” as that former CIA director and ubiquitous driver of bogus narratives Brennan put it. Yet according to Mueller, Russian officials couldn’t even reach Trump until after he was elected. Forget about blackmail, they didn’t even have his phone number!
How about Carter Page, described on the floor of the House of Representatives by Adam Schiff as the indispensible cutout between two shadow worlds, the go-between offered that giant bribe by the evil Russians?
Most of the press assumed Page was a crook and a turncoat. After all, the FBI’s FISA warrant application said straight-out Page was “collaborating and conspiring” with the Russian government, adding it had “probable cause” to believe his activities “involve or are about to involve violations of the criminal statutes of the United States.”
What sealed Page’s fate is that Trump defended him, rendering any suggestion he was innocent or at least entitled to a fair hearing automatically infamous.
One of the most charming developments of the Russiagate era has been the wholesale dismissal of civil liberties concerns, as reporters became worshippers of spooks and wiretappers, sneering at everything from the presumption of innocence to attorney-client privilege to the right against unreasonable searches and seizures as quaint observances of a dead religion – mere tricks of the devil trying to clutter the road to Heaven’s Gate.
Pundits therefore scoffed at the idea, put forward by Trump or anyone else, that Page was not an “agent of a foreign power” who had been “engaged in clandestine intelligence activities” on behalf of Russia, as the FBI described.
“Carter Page admits he only kind of helped the Russian government,” was a typical treatment, in Vanity Fair. “Without Evidence, Trump Claims Vindication From Release of Carter Page Documents,” read the New York Times last July. This was one of countless stories dismissing the idea Trump campaign officials had been spied upon after evidence surfaced that they had, in fact, been spied upon.**
A classic of that genre came after the revelation that a known CIA clown and political dirty trickster made “contact” with several Trump campaign officials in 2016, including Page and George Papadopoulos.
CIA director Gina Haspel threatened the world with prosecution if this source’s name were published, and unnamed “multiple people familiar with the discussion” told the Washington Post the White House had been persuaded “exposing… a U.S. citizen who has provided intelligence to the CIA and FBI” would “risk lives.”
But the “source” in question turned out to be a dink named Stefan Halper, who’d been known to the world as a government informant since before the release of Madonna’s Like a Virgin video.
Halper was outed in the New York Times in July of 1983 for spying on Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential campaign, at the behest of former CIA chief and Ronald Reagan running mate George H.W. Bush. He’d lived in comfort ever since, in recent decades roaming the grounds of Cambridge University with apparent indifference to the dire threat of assassination, despite known CIA ties.
In other words, unnamed officials were once again duping the press – how could exposing an already-exposed informant “risk lives”? Yet reporters continued to swallow official pronouncements from those exact same sources, who now implored them to stress a dubious semantic difference between “informing” and “spying.”
The Halper disclosures as a result prompted cognitive-dissonance headlines like this Times gem of last May 18th: “F.B.I. Used Informant to Investigate Ties to Campaign, Not to Spy, as Trump Claims.”
Humorously, in testimony released a week before the Mueller report, FBI general counsel James Baker was asked by Democrat Jamie Raskin if the FBI had ever sent a “spy into the Trump campaign.” The question was clearly asked with the aim of putting the issue to rest. Baker’s unconvincing response was to pause and ask to confer with counsel.
“I just want to look at the FBI for a second here in terms of answering these kinds of questions,” he said, at which point he leaned over to whisper with [Name Redacted], esq., before answering “No, I am not aware of an effort to put a spy in the campaign.” Rather, they just sent into the campaign people who concealed their identities while secretly investigating.
This was the FBI version of, “I never said fire!”
After all this, what does the Mueller report say about Page? “Investigators did not establish that Page conspired with the Russian government.”
Carter Page was not an agent. He was never offered a bribe. The most cursory review would have revealed Page was at best a peripheral player in the Trump campaign. He was, it seems, just a guy, wrongly put under secret surveillance and thrust under sinister headlines based upon an inaccurate/deceptive warrant application, one that among other things cited a private opposition research document that is looking more and more like complete bull by the hour.
Obviously, no one on my side of the media aisle cares when a Trump-connected person is smeared, so we can skip past waiting for apologies.
What about lesson-learning? The Page story should have been a cautionary tale about loopholes built into the security state, and the threats institutions like FISA pose to any free person. It should also have raised very serious questions about the motives and behavior of the FBI in this case. Instead, because Page was/is a Trump person, the press applauded the FISA warrant even after its flaws were revealed.
“The FBI Would Have Been Derelict Not To Use The Steele Dossier In the Carter Page FISA Warrant,” was the pronouncement of the Daily Beast, one of many outlets to assume authorities always had a better evidentiary hand than they were showing. The warrant application’s redacted material, the Beast wrote, “likely further support the application but are redacted because of the highly sensitive nature of the information.”
Another story that was inexplicably allowed to fester for ages – and here reporters should be furious and wondering why none of their unnamed whisperers warned them off this trail – is the tale of Cohen in Prague. Here Mueller is blunt again: “Cohen… never traveled to Prague.”
This wipes out multiple “bombshells,” including one in particular from last April by McClatchy: “Mueller has evidence Cohen was in Prague.”
McClatchy was once a revered name when it came to investigative reporting. Sadly, it is standing by its story instead of seething about being burned. Its claim now is Mueller, though definitive about Cohen’s presence in Prague, was quiet on the question of whether or not a “Cohen device pinged [in Prague].”
This, they say, is what five unnamed sources told them (with Russiagate, over time, the quantity of unnamed sources seemed to grow in relation to the seeming unlikelihood of the story) was that a Cohen cell phone pinged in Prague, not that Cohen was actually there.
Here’s the original McClatchy headline from April, 2018:
Sources: Mueller has evidence Cohen was in Prague in 2016, confirming part of dossier
This April 2018 story, at the time sourced to two more people “familiar with the matter,” said “the Justice Department special counsel has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 Presidential campaign.”
The McClatchy piece had serious implications. It spoke to the question of full-blown conspiracy with Russians to fix the 2016 election. Cohen ostensibly would have been in Prague to meet with “Kremlin representatives and associated operators/hackers.”
This was according to the Steele report, which was in the headline of the original McClatchy story as being partially confirmed by this news.
McClatchy was one of at least nine news organizations that saw the Steele report before it was published in early 2017. They themselves reported this. They refused to publish the report then for the same reasons the others did not: they could not confirm its particulars.
Later, they came around, apparently convinced – perhaps by this Prague tale – that the report was verifiable in parts. Unnamed persons then suckered them into a demonstrably wrong headline (we now know for certain Mueller did not have evidence Cohen was in Prague).
Then, someone convinced them to double down, in December 2018, and now they won’t come off the ledge, even though the underlying narrative their story suggested – that Cohen was in Prague for a secret meeting with Kremlin hackers – has been exploded six different ways by the Mueller report.
Part 1 of the Untitledgate preface is concluded. To get Part 2 – and the rest of the book as it is published – subscribe now. To be continued…
* William Miller, father of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, predicted the end of the world would come on this same date, April 18th, in 1844. When it came and went, he revised his prediction to October 22 later that year, leading to the fiasco known as “The Great Disappointment.”
** For anyone tempted to harp on the idea Page was technically no longer a Trump campaign staffer by the time the FISA warrant went through, making this not really spying on the Trump campaign, the warrant application made plain the FBI’s theory was Russians were “conspiring” with Page precisely because of his relationship with Trump. From page 9: “The FBI believes that the Russian government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with Candidate 1’s campaign.”
Earlier in Untitledgate: