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Russia: The Conspiracy Trap

Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Moscow, 2016

What’s so terrible about Russia? Serious question.

Among the things that unite President Trump and his cabinet picks is their propensity for lying. ProPublica recently offered a list of lies made by Trump nominees in confirmation hearings in Congress, mostly under oath. Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt lied when he claimed not to have used a private email account as Oklahoma attorney general (Vice President Mike Pence used one too, as governor of Indiana); Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price lied about a suspect stock purchase; Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin lied about his firm’s history of profiting from the housing crisis; Education Secretary Betsy DeVos lied that she was not involved in her family foundation, which has supported anti-LGBT causes and funded a variety of conservative think tanks and colleges, though tax filings show she has been its vice president for seventeen years. And, as we now know, Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about contacts with the Russian ambassador.

Lying to Congress is a criminal offense. But Pruitt was confirmed in a 52-46 vote, with two Democrats voting in favor; Price got confirmed 52-47; Mnuchin’s tally was 53-47; and even DeVos, whose utter lack of knowledge about public education led two Republicans to vote against her, squeaked through with a 50-50 vote broken by Vice President Pence. These affirming votes took place despite the fact that it was clear before the decision that the candidates had misled Congress—and despite the fact that each of them supports policies that are deeply threatening to large numbers of Americans.

Lies about Russia are a different matter. Trump’s national security adviser, Mike Flynn, was forced to resign less than four weeks into the new presidency after it emerged that he had lied to Pence about meeting with the Russian ambassador; and Sessions, under bipartisan fire for having lied to Congress about the same thing, now faces calls to step down.

I am, of course, merely pretending not to know what makes Russia so special. For more than six months now, Russia has served as a crutch for the American imagination. It is used to explain how Trump could have happened to us, and it is also called upon to give us hope. When the Russian conspiracy behind Trump is finally fully exposed, our national nightmare will be over.

A great many journalists and pundits have been convinced of the Russia conspiracy since December, some since October, a few since July. That conviction helps “connect the dots” as more and more dots seem to appear. Every new story makes the evidence pile up, even if it later turns out to be apparently unrelated—as in the case of the cybersecurity experts who were arrested and charged with treason by Russian authorities in December. In January The New York Times, Rachel Maddow, and a slew of other outlets reported on rumors that the charges of treason stemmed from disclosures about the Russian hacking of the US election. But a month later, when Reuters reported that the arrests were the result of an unrelated seven-year-old case, few other publications followed up on the story. The fact is, the Russian justice system is so opaque and so corrupt that it is virtually impossible to know why these men were arrested—but the arrests have long since taken their place in the narrative.

The backbone of the rapidly yet endlessly developing Trump-Putin story is leaks from intelligence agencies, and this is its most troublesome aspect. Virtually none of the information can be independently corroborated. The context, sequence, and timing of the leaks is determined by people unknown to the public, which is expected to accept anonymous stories on faith; nor have we yet been given any hard evidence of active collusion by Trump officials. As a paragraph deep into a New York Times analysis noted on Friday,

vigorous reporting by multiple news media organizations is turning up multiple contacts between Trump associates and Russians who serve in or are close to Mr. Putin’s government. There have been courtesy calls, policy discussions and business contacts, though nothing has emerged publicly indicating anything more sinister….Former diplomats and Russia specialists say it would have been absurd and contrary to American interests for the Trump team to avoid meetings with Russians, either during or since the campaign.

Given that the story has been driven by the intelligence community and the media, it is perhaps unsurprising that each subsequent revelation creates the sense of pieces falling into place. It builds like an old-fashioned television series, dispensed in weekly episodes with no binge-watching allowed. What remains from the earliest installments is not so much information as mood. Take, for example, one of the earliest revelations: in July an opinion piece in The Washington Post claimed that the Trump campaign “worked behind the scenes” to block a platform amendment that would have called for providing lethal aid to Ukraine—including weapon systems, mortars, grenade launchers, ammunition, and other armaments. The article was slightly misleading: it made it seem like Trump’s people made the party abandon a plank that would have called for maintaining or increasing sanctions and lethal aid. In fact, the sanctions part of the plank stayed in the platform—it was the lethal-aid amendment, a step that had hitherto not been taken, even during the height of the Ukraine war in 2014, that was tabled. The issue is far from a clear-cut one: few people in Washington, whether Republicans or Democrats, are on record as favoring lethal aid.

Now, the Republican convention is back in the news because one of the conversations the Russian ambassador had with Sessions, who was at the time an adviser to the Trump campaign, occurred in Cleveland, at a diplomacy panel timed to run alongside the convention. On March 2, USA Today reported that two more members of the Trump campaign—J.D. Gordon and Carter Page—spoke to the Russian ambassador at the same panel. When CNN picked up the story, it reported that “Gordon said that he was a part of the effort that was part of the Trump campaign to put some language in the GOP platform that essentially said that the Republican Party did not advocate arming the Ukrainians in their battle against pro-Russian separatists.” Correspondent Jim Acosta continued,

Of course, that was a big issue that was flaring up at the time. That effort was ultimately successful. They were successful in having that language in the Republican Party platform. I asked J.D. Gordon, ‘Well, why is that? Why did you go ahead and advocate for that language?’ He said this is the language that Donald Trump himself wanted and advocated for back in March at the meeting at the unfinished Trump Hotel here in Washington, D.C. J.D. Gordon said then-candidate Trump said he did not want to, quote, ‘go to World War III over Ukraine.’ And so, as J.D. Gordon says, at the Republican convention in Cleveland he advocated for language in that Republican Party platform that reflected then-candidate Trump’s comments.

He then briefly noted that Gordon denied that any inappropriate conversation had occurred between him and the Russian ambassador.

The report sounded damning—unless one knew, of course, that the “language” to which Acosta managed to refer four times in the space of thirty seconds did not exist—no statement on Ukraine was inserted into the Republican platform by the Trump campaign—and that the sentiment ostensibly ascribed to candidate Trump falls squarely in the foreign-policy mainstream and was, in fact, the position held by the Obama administration. The “meetings” that sounded so sinister were in fact public encounters that occurred during a panel and, later, a cocktail party—schmoozing, which is both the ambassador’s and campaign advisers’ jobs. But all of Friday-evening punditry on CNN and MSNBC was from that point on occupied with connecting the imaginary dots of the Russian ambassador-Trump campaign cabal at the Republican convention. CNN also ran with an unsubstantiated report that the Russian ambassador is a “spy master,” an outrageous assertion that mirrored Russian propaganda about Obama’s Moscow ambassador, Michael McFaul.

A later building block in the story, which has become its virtual cornerstone, is the joint intelligence report on Russian interference in the campaign, which was released in December and is, plainly, laughable. Is it possible that there is a trove of yet-unleaked classified information that proves that a Russian conspiracy existed, and succeeded in hijacking the American election? Yes, it is. Is it also possible that a few, or many, intelligence officials, who feel, understandably, both insulted by Trump, who has openly and repeatedly denigrated the intelligence establishment, and terrified of what he might do to the country, are using scant or inconclusive evidence to try to undermine his credibility? Yes. What is indisputable is that the protracted national game of connecting the Trump-Putin dots is an exercise in conspiracy thinking. That does not mean there was no conspiracy. And yet, a possible conspiracy is a poor excuse for conspiracy thinking.

The most solid part of the story to date is the hack of the Democratic National Committee, apparently carried out by people connected to Russian intelligence. Hacking, releasing email, and spreading disinformation has been a standard Russian strategy for a number of years. Domestically, these tactics are used to discredit opponents of the regime. Internationally, they are used—and have been used repeatedly in numerous European countries as well as the United States—to disrupt and undermine public trust in Western democracies. This strategy predates email and the Internet and even contemporary Russia—it goes back to the cold war, when the Soviet Union aimed to sow disinformation and build alliances with marginal political players—perhaps not so much because they were the best possible conduits for disruption as because they were the only ones Soviet spies could reach.

For most of its history, the strategy was a colossal waste of money and human resources, probably because Soviet understanding of Western political systems was exceedingly poor. Judging from the memoirs of Soviet defectors, their masters imagined the West exactly as it was portrayed in Soviet propaganda. In a popular 1984 miniseries called “TASS is Authorized to Declare,” for example, a heroic KGB officer exposes an American spy in Moscow. The spy’s handler, an American named John Glabb, not only organizes pro-American military coups in small African countries but also traffics in heroin, which he smuggles in the bodies of babies purchased from impoverished families and killed for CIA purposes. Modern Russian spymasters get their ideas about the West from the West itself—they are generally convinced that the American political system is accurately portrayed by House of Cards. If Russian disruption efforts were more successful during the 2016 American election, it was not because the Russians have become so much better at what they do or have finally developed a sophisticated understanding of American politics—it is because American politics have come to resemble the TV caricatures.

Trump and his entire campaign team are precisely the kinds of fringe characters that Russians have traditionally cultivated, to no measurable effect. Even the insiders on Trump’s team were outsiders: Jeff Sessions was seen by his Senate colleagues as a crank and an extreme outlier on immigration and other issues; General Mike Flynn had been fired by the Obama administration for insubordination that stemmed from his penchant for conspiracy theories. Others, like foreign policy adviser Carter Page, had never been allowed at the grown-up table before. One-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, for all his supposed Republican/Washington credentials, was basically a paid hack for a succession of the world’s crooks. And Steve Bannon, above all, had turned being a fringe character into a profession.

And then this campaign staffed with bottom-feeders won, and talk of Russia’s influence on the outcome—though the Kremlin itself by every indication seems to have assumed a Clinton presidency—has finally reached the point of pushing leading members of Congress to call for an investigation by a special attorney. If a causal relationship between Russian interference and Trump’s 70,000-vote, three-county edge exists, the likelihood that such a relationship can be proved is vanishingly small. Failing that, what might an investigation find? Undoubtedly, it can find that Trump’s associates lied about their contacts with Russian officials—as they lie, habitually, about a great many things. What makes the Russia lies worse than any other?

The answer is intuitive: Republicans in the House and Senate cannot be compelled to call out the Trump administration’s other lies—even when they break the law. And they will do everything in their power to avoid having to, since, as terrible as Trump is, his administration is the best chance in years to push through some of their most far-reaching policy goals, from dismantling health care to lowering taxes and reversing banking reforms. In addition, their constituents voted for Trump, who will unleash a Twitter firestorm in response to any slight, real or imagined. But the fear of being seen as ignoring a primary threat to national security, indeed, as disloyal to the country may, if the media buildup continues, force them to respond to the allegations.

Russia has become the universal rhetorical weapon of American politics. Calls for the release of Trump’s tax returns—which the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) hopes to have subpoenaed as a result of its lawsuit alleging the violation of the Emoluments Clause—are now framed in terms of the need to reveal Trump’s financial ties to Russia. And the president himself is recapturing the campaign debate’s “No, you are the puppet” moment on Twitter, trying to smear Democratic politicians Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi with Russia.

The dream fueling the Russia frenzy is that it will eventually create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him. If that happens, it will have resulted largely from a media campaign orchestrated by members of the intelligence community—setting a dangerous political precedent that will have corrupted the public sphere and promoted paranoia. And that is the best-case outcome.

More likely, the Russia allegations will not bring down Trump. He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” As for Sessions, in his first speech as attorney general he promised to cut back civil rights enforcement and he has already abandoned a Justice Department case against a discriminatory Texas voter ID law. But it was his Russia lie that grabbed the big headlines.

The unrelenting focus on Russia has yielded an unexpected positive result, however. Following Flynn’s resignation, Trump designated Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a thoughtful and highly respected military strategist, as his national security adviser. And Fiona Hill, probably the most knowledgeable American scholar of Putin’s Russia, is expected to take charge of Russia policy at the National Security Council. Hill has been a consistent and perceptive critic of Putin, and a proponent of maintaining sanctions imposed by the United States following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both of these appointments—and the fact that sanctions remain in place six weeks into Trump’s fast-moving presidency—contradict the “Putin’s puppet” narrative (as does the fact that Russian domestic propaganda has already turned against Trump). But such is the nature of conspiracy thinking that facts can do nothing to change it.

Imagine if the same kind of attention could be trained and sustained on other issues—like it has been on the Muslim travel ban. It would not get rid of Trump, but it might mitigate the damage he is causing. Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and subliterate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.