Russiagate and the new Red Scare

Katie Halper interviews Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone and Aaron Maté of The Nation about how much of the mainstream media glommed onto the Trump-Russia collusion story, predictably called ‘Russiagate’, for so long to the exclusion of many other important stories, and left themselves wide open to the kind of blowback that they are now experiencing because of the Mueller report seemingly saying (at least as far as the released short summary goes) that there was no such collusion. The entire interview is well worth reading but here are a few excerpts. (MT refers to Taibbi, AM to Maté, and KH to Halper.)

MT: In March 2017, I wrote an article saying this story is a minefield for the Democratic Party and particularly for journalists, because Trump had made it such an important part of his message that journalists were out to get him, that they were representatives of the elite who would stop at nothing to undermine this presidency. And to me it seemed the only way we could possibly lose with the public in a contest with someone like Trump is if we completely abdicated the standards of the profession and did what he accused us of doing, which would be politicizing our jobs and using trumped-up evidence to try to make him look bad. That was the one option out of an infinite number of ways we could have pursued covering his presidency. That was the one thing that could have really helped him. And we did it. Not only did we do it, but we did it, basically, to the exclusion of everything else, for years.

KH: What were some of the important stories the public was deprived of?

AM: Literally everything. I remember watching Rachel Maddow the day that Congress had taken a huge step forward toward taking away the health insurance of millions of Americans. I think she gave it around 30 seconds and then moved onto some element of the conspiracy theory that ended up being debunked. MNSBC didn’t mention Yemen for I think about a year.

KH: Where in Russia is Yemen?

AM: At a time when the U.S. was taking part in a genocide and killing tens of thousands of people through the Saudi bombing campaign and the famine that that campaign was causing. And one of the most crucial things it ignored was the serious escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia that Trump was overseeing through carrying out policies that were far more hawkish than Obama, which we haven’t focused on, partly because they’re supported by the bipartisan foreign consensus in Washington, which the media generally goes along with, but also because to acknowledge those policies, to look at them seriously, would undercut this idea that everybody bought into that Trump was doing Putin’s bidding.

MT: There was a very telling story for me. Every year the Pentagon is responsible, under each year’s National Defense Authorization, to submit a memo that’s usually not made public on which countries we have active combat operations in. And I believe it was in early 2017 that they released one that said we had active operations in seven countries. So I did a little story basically saying, hey does anybody notice we’re at war in Niger and Somalia and Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan? Just the idea that we’ve started new military campaigns, and that this can fly completely under the radar with the public because of the Russiagate story, just speaks to the enormity of the story and how much oxygen it took up. It took up everything. We didn’t have time for anything else.

AM: [The media] imagine no endgame. This whole thing is incoherent. They were accusing Trump of doing Putin’s bidding while he consistently does the opposite: tries to overthrow Putin’s ally in Venezuela; bombs Putin’s ally in Syria twice; pulls out of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, basically setting off a whole new nuclear arms race. So basically, the actual endgame in real life is existential peril, because we are risking nuclear accidents and the threat of war based on these hawkish policies. But that doesn’t matter to those who profited off of the Russiagate narrative, like the failed neoliberal, Democratic elites, who needed an excuse to cover for the fact that they lost to Donald Trump; FBI intelligence officials who opened up this investigation on very specious grounds and who suspected Trump, in part, because he was saying nice things about Vladimir Putin. And whether you agree with that or not, to lay that as a predicate for a counterintelligence investigation is just extraordinary. Then there was the media, which, of course, got a lot of ratings and clicks by spinning this spy thriller.

MT: I think there was an element of Russiagate, and still is, that does have a logic to it. it’s a very dark logic. If you saw what happened in 2016, the political situation was that the ruling neoliberal consensus was under fire from all sides, from radical right movements both in the United States and in Europe; from leftist movements, both in the United States and Europe. The overwhelming voter sentiment everywhere had to do with the rejection of the international global consensus. You saw votes like Brexit, a complete repudiation of a number of things. But Russiagate as a political solution, as a response to that electoral phenomenon, has been extraordinarily effective. Because what it’s done is it’s completely changed the attitude of a huge portion of the population, which now sees the international security services, the global consensus, as the only saviors who are going to rescue them from the evil Trump. And therefore, we have to pursue this case and celebrate authoritarianism and celebrate the FBI and CIA and their heroism, and the European Union and NATO. This story has had some benefit from a propaganda perspective as well.

KH: So, is the idea that the intelligence community will act as the adults in the room and stop Trump from getting his finger on the button?

AM: Well, that was part of this narrative—that we’re supposed to revere and trust in these intelligence officials, forgetting their actual record, which includes giving us one of the biggest crimes in recent memory—the Iraq War. They’re the ones who spun the phony intel about [weapons of mass destruction]. And also promoting this notion that fundamentally undermines the idea of democratic government, where it’s the elected president, whether you like that person or not, who’s supposed to make the decision, not unelected intelligence bureaucrats.

AM: This didn’t start in 2016. Russophobia is in the bloodstream of American political culture. For decades, it’s been the Russians invading us and manipulating us and turning our young people into dupes, planting propaganda in our heads. That’s why this Russiagate thing could not have happened with any other country. There’s a reason we don’t hear about “Israelgate” or “Saudigate”. It survives on this very entrenched Cold War mindset that way predates 2016.

All the focus on whether Trump was colluding with Putin has taken attention away from his shady business dealings with unsavory figures like Felix Sater.

But it is not over. Think Progress, that neoliberal vehicle of the Democratic party leadership, is now making lists of those it claims are enablers of Russian propaganda or election interference and may even be Russian sympathizers or even agents. Those who warned that the media was dangerously over-reaching by assuming the worst in the absence of evidence and taking at face value the statements of intelligence officials who had lied repeatedly in the past, were accused of being unwitting or even witting tools of Russia. I wonder if we are soon going to hear the word ‘comsymp’ again used against anyone who does not reflexively think of Russia as a uniquely evil agent in the world.

The first 12 minutes of this Al Jazeera program also discussed the US media coverage of this issue.


  1. Mark Dowd says

    Who’s fault is it that they got it wrong, if you can even say they got it wrong? Let’s look at the evidence:

    1) Trump fired Comey for, I quote, “this Russia thing”, and “now I’m free of this guy”. The day after that he had a visit with the Russian ambassador where Russian press was allowed, but not US press.

    2) Trump adamantly refuses to admit that Russia interfered with the 2016 election, and every time hes ever had to make public comment about that you can tell it’s pissed him the fuck off. Multiple times he has said he believes Putin over the advice of his own intelligence directors.

    3) It’s been buried in all the more recent shit, but his son-in-law tried to set up a secret line of communication through the Russian embassy that our own intelligence agencies would not be privy to.

    4) Don Jr.s own public omission from a few years ago that they got a lot of funding from Russian sources.

    5) Micheal Cohen’s ties to Russian mobsters, as well as lying to Congress about Trump’s attempt at business deals with Russia.

    6) Literally everything about Paul Manafort.

    7) “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you can find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

    That’s just what I can think of off the top of my head. Time and time and time again the actions of the Trump himself and all the people he chose to surround himself with completely reinforced the Russia narrative. If any of the Russian evidence was overinterpreted, Trump himself is the only one to blame for constantly acting like the guiltiest ratfucker to ever hold the office.

    Taking all of that into account, was anybody really “assuming the worst in the absence of evidence”? I call bullshit. There was plenty of evidence, and it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder what else would be uncovered. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, and we were choking on smoke every single day. Just because we found smoldering embers instead of a raging wildfire doesn’t mean anyone was wrong to be worried about a wildfire.

  2. Mark Dowd says

    Of course that doesn’t excuse ignoring other important crises around the world, but I don’t think the Russia investigation was overblown. I don’t think that’s it’s possible for it to be overblown, because the question of a president being compromised or corrupted by a foreign power is an existential threat to the entire government.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    the actions of the Trump himself and all the people he chose to surround himself with completely reinforced the Russia narrative

    … and now he has a report that “proves” that that narrative is bollocks and that all this media focus was, ahem, fake news. Is he the guiltiest ratfucker to ever hold office? Or has he played the media like a Stradivarius and secured a second term on the basis that he can now, with independent justification, rubbish literally anything the opposition or media says about him for ooh, the next five years? (Note: these two options are not mutually exclusive).

    I don’t really subscribe to the “Trump is playing four-dimensional chess” theory, but you have to admit that if you look at it objectively, it does rather look as though all the anti-Trump media have been suckered into shooting themselves in the foot and then again in the side of the head… over the course of years while this story has developed. Suckered by Trump? Or some power behind him? Does he listen to anyone?

  4. colinday says

    Perhaps it’s not so much the limits on investigative journalism, but of the American attention span.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the Trump-Russia collusion story, predictably called ‘Russiagate’…

    Primarily by those actively denying Russian involvement with the 2016 Trump campaign and aftermath.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    All of Robert Mueller’s indictments and plea deals in the Russia investigation

    Setting aside stuff covered by Mark Dowd #1, there is also:
    George Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI. Sounds like obstruction of justice to me.
    Michael Flynn, pled guilty to making false statements to FBI (although some of them were not about Russia).
    13 Russians and 3 Russian companies indicted on charges related to tampering in 2016 election.
    12 Russian GRU officers indicted for stealing DNC emails.
    Roger Stone, currently on trial for colluding with Wikileaks, and for witness tampering (i.e. obstruction of justice).
    Carter Page.
    Mariia Butina.

    Considering all of this, there clearly was enough evidence to warrant an investigation, and the “complete exonoration” line is completely unsupportable.
    So too is the claim by Trump’s administration that the lack of prosecutable collusion means that he won the 2016 election “fair and square” because he had better policy positions. There was plenty of misbehavior by the Russians, there was plenty of misbehavior by the Trump campaign and its close allies. The only thing that seems to be missing is the direct link of collusion between the two. So the view that the entire thing was trumped up by Trump’s enemies on the left and in the press is hogwash. You should not be proud to be repeating it.

  7. lochaber says

    I basically agree with all the points made by Mark Dowd and Reginald Selkirk.

    I might be able to buy something about orange asshole being sufficiently insulated from any direct interaction, and not being a witting participant, but I think it’s quite clear that he is very easily manipulated.

    How many times did Clinton go on trial over Benghazi? and now the current administration is pushing to open up yet another investigation into her?

  8. jrkrideau says

    Let me see if I have this correct. The Russians, with a much better grasp of US politics than any US political consultant; decide a corrupt reality show host is the favorable Presidential candidate for 2016.

    Heck, they can elect him with a couple of hundred thousands dollars in Facebook ads. We can ignore the 2 billion dollars the candidates spent on the election. The Americans are too stupid to counteract a couple of hundred thousand dollars worth of Facebook ads from the “Russians”‘.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of Americans. Or should that be “misunderestimating”?

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    jerkrideau #9: ..Heck, they can elect him with a couple of hundred thousands dollars in Facebook ads. We can ignore the 2 billion dollars the candidates spent on the election…

    Go ahead, downplay the power of Internet data-enabled targeting. You will find yourself in a world where gerrymandering is much more powerful than it ever was, conspiracy groups, anti-vaxers and flat-earthers are resurging, and your current laws and enforcement powers are not up to the task of doing anything about it.

  11. Mark Dowd says

    We can ignore the 2 billion dollars the candidates spent on the election.
    I think most of that $2 billion would be going toward traditional media that no one gives a shit about because A) They’re TV ads, who even pays attention to them, and B) they’re obvious political ads that even fewer than nobody cares about (they either already agree, or won’t be convinced).

    You can always get more bang for your buck if you’re willing to violate ethics and the law and don’t get caught.

  12. Dunc says

    But hey, who doesn’t walk around with a malware-infested USB stick in their pockets these days?

    Given the alarming prevalence of USB-based malware (responsible for around 26% of all malware infections according to a 2011 Microsoft study, and very likely more now), lots of people obviously do, and almost all of them are completely unaware of it (sometimes it even comes pre-installed). If you’re going to argue that the mere possession of an infected device makes someone suspicious, then there are a heck of a lot of suspicious people out there. You might also want to check all of your devices first.

  13. lanir says

    The indictments seem to indicate this is more Teapot Dome 2 than Russiagate.

    I do think Comey had more effect on the election than the Russians. He certainly isn’t a hero just because he can talk coherently in an age of blargle. The idea that the intelligence agencies will be our heroes here is ludicrous. They had a strong hand in creating this mess in the first place. Dunno about you all but I have real problems with anyone profiting off problems they created.

    The Trump Tower meeting seems like the Trump campaign was entering into it enthusiastically, with the aim of getting Russian help in the election. But I don’t see any reason why the Mueller team would have passed on charging the participants if the evidence warranted it. All the rest of us have are 3 data points on that: the email exchange, a partial list of guests who actually showed up, and the fact that the Trump campaign neglected to report the incident to anyone in law enforcement. These are more than enough for suspicion but not enough to conclude anything about the actual meeting and actions by both parties afterward (except the lack of reporting).

    Pretty much everything else that hasn’t been part of a conviction or plea deal is best taken as conjecture by interested parties who have a preferred outcome. With the exception of ongoing investigations and charges, that is. Our legal system is incredibly corrupt and unfair, but only if you’re poor. Everyone involved here is rich so they’re getting the very best our legal system has to offer.

    The republican side of this looks pretty ridiculous, too. The pathological liar in chief thinks a face to face interview is entrapment because lying in one is a crime. Doesn’t think that’s wrong, just wrong for him. Every step along the way complete innocence was claimed for everyone, until the facts proved those claims incorrect. Incompetent lies were told to the public repeatedly, then they whined about how the media was treating them unfairly by pointing out those lies. At this point they’re betting everything on Nixon’s old playbook of unitary executive theory (essentially the king is the country and so cannot betray it but cosmetically updated with pretend democratic trappings), big self-serving lies told bigly to a massive audience they hope is gullible enough to swallow them whole, courts they hope they’ve stacked in their favor (hint: they’re already in their favor because all the defendents are rich, this is just to get them off scott free instead), and corrupt use of the presidential pardon if all that fails. Oh and could we please get a two minutes hate on the Clintons while we’re at it? Because all these sad liars need a pick-me-up.

    Nobody looks good here. Even the public who mostly play the role of victims in all this because almost half of them voted in scumbags because their misogynist/racist feelings were hurt. So we got scumbags on parade.

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