It will take weeks for the elite pundit class to unravel all the possible implications and subtexts embedded in Robert Mueller’s final report on the charge that Donald Trump and his team colluded with Russia to fix the 2016 election. The right claims that the report exonerates Trump fully, while the left contends there are lots of nuggets in the full text of the final report that may point to obstruction of justice, if not collusion.
But here’s all you need to know about the special counsel probe:
First, after nearly two years, the special counsel found no credible evidence of collusion. It found no credible evidence of a plot to obstruct justice, to hide evidence of collusion. The entire collusion theory, which has formed the center of elite political discourse for over two years now, has been publicly and definitely proclaimed to be a hoax by the very person on whom news organizations and their chosen “experts” and “high-level sources” had so loudly and insistently pinned their daily, even hourly, hopes of redemption.
Mueller should have filed his report on May 18, 2017—the day after the special counsel started and he learned the FBI had opened an investigation on the sitting president of the United States because senior officials at the world’s premier law enforcement agency thought Trump was a Russian spy. Based on what evidence? A dossier compiled by a former British spy, relying on second- and third-hand sources, paid for by the Clinton campaign.
Instead, the special counsel lasted 674 days, during which millions of people who believed Mueller was going to turn up conclusive evidence of Trump’s devious conspiracies with the Kremlin have become wrapped up in a collective hallucination that has destroyed the remaining credibility of the American press and the D.C. expert class whose authority they promote.
Mueller knew that he wasn’t ever going to find “collusion” or anything like it because all the intercepts were right there on his desk. As it turned out, two of his prosecutors, including Mueller’s so-called “pit bull,” Andrew Weissman, had been briefed on the Steele dossier prior to the 2016 election and were told that it came from the Clintons, and was likely a biased political document.
Weissman left, or was pushed out of, his employment with the special counsel a few weeks ago, after the arrival of a new attorney general, William Barr, who had deep experience in government, including stints at the Justice Department and the CIA. Knowing what we know now, here’s what seems most likely to have just happened: Barr looked at the underlying documents on which Mueller’s investigation was based. First, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s May 17, 2017, memo appointing the former FBI director to take supervision of the FBI’s investigation of Trump. And more importantly, the Aug. 2, 2017, memo from Rosenstein outlining the scope of the investigation.
Among the scope memo’s few unredacted lines are allegations regarding Paul Manafort’s “colluding with Russian government officials … to interfere with the 2016 elections.” The only known source for those allegations is the Steele dossier. What that strongly suggests is that under those redactions are other fabricated allegations that were also drawn from the Clinton-funded smear campaign—a dirty-tricks operation that was led by Fusion GPS founder and conspiracy theorist Glenn Simpson.
And now, after all the Saturday Night Live skits, the obscenity-riddled Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert routines, the half a million news stories and tens of millions of tweets all foretelling the end of Trump, the comedians and the adult authority figures are exposed as hoaxsters, or worse, based on evidence that was always transparently phony.
The Mueller report is in. But the abuse of power that the special counsel embodied is a deadly cancer on American democracy. Two years of investigations have left families in ruins, stripping them of their savings, their homes, threatening their liberty, and dragging their names through the mud. The investigation of the century was partly based on the possibility that Michael Flynn, a combat veteran who served his country for more than three decades, might be a Russian spy—because of a dinner he once attended in Moscow, and because as incoming national security adviser he spoke to the Russian ambassador to Washington. What rot.
While the length of Mueller’s investigative process may have protected the FBI from the president’s immediate rage, the release of the report has exposed the deep corruption and personal narcissism of the press and its professional networks of “experts” and “sources.” Instead of providing medicine, the press chose instead to spread the disease through a body that was already badly weakened by the advent of “free” digital media. Only, it wasn’t free.
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The media criticism of the media’s performance covering Russiagate is misleadingly anodyne—OK, sure the press did a bad job, but to be fair there really was a lot of suspicious stuff going on and now let’s all get back to doing our important work. But two years of false and misleading Russiagate coverage was not a mistake, or a symptom of lax fact-checking.
Russiagate was an information operation from the beginning, in which dozens of individual reporters and institutions actively partnered with paid political operatives like Glenn Simpson and corrupt law enforcement and intelligence officials like former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and senior DOJ official Bruce Ohr to smear Trump and his circle, and then to topple him. None of what went on the last two years would have been possible without the press, an indispensable partner in the biggest political scandal in a generation.
The campaign was waged not in hidden corners of the internet, but rather by the country’s most prestigious news organizations—including, but not only, The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC. The farce that has passed for public discourse the last two years was fueled by a concerted effort of the media and the pundit class to obscure gaping holes in logic as well as law. And yet, they all appeared to be credible because the institutions sustaining them are credible.
Michael McFaul was U.S. ambassador to Moscow—he knows everything about Russia. He wouldn’t invent stuff about national security matters out of thin air. Jane Mayer is a national treasure, one of America’s greatest living journalists who penned a long profile of Christopher Steele in the pages of the New Yorker. Susan Hennessy is a former intelligence community lawyer, who appears as an expert on TV. And how about her colleague at the Lawfare blog, Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution fellow and a personal friend of James Comey? You think he didn’t have the inside dope, every time he posted a “Boom” GIF on Twitter predicting the final nail just about to be hammered in Trump’s coffin?
Many more jumped on the dog pile along with them, validating each other’s tweets and breathless insider sourcing. The point was to thicken the echo chamber, with voices from the right as well as the left in order to make it seem real. Hey, if this many experts are saying so, there must be something to it.
Except, there wasn’t—ever.
American democracy is premised on a free press that does its best to provide the public with information. Misinforming the public is like dumping toxic waste in the rivers. It poisoned our democracy—and it continues to do so. In fact, the most important thing for the public to understand is that Russiagate is not unique. It’s the way that the expert class opines on everything now, from immigration to foreign policy.
Take for instance last week’s big news that President Trump had decided to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The decision was universally praised in Israel, by both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by opponents like Yair Lapid. Yet Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, insisted that the decision was politically motivated, telling the Washington Post that “the timing seems pretty transparent.” Surely, like his ambassadorial colleague, McFaul, Shapiro knew exactly what he’s talking about when he tweeted that the decision was made without “any policy planning process to consider potential reactions by Russia, Assad regime, Hezbollah, Arab states, Europe, etc., some of which may not be immediate. A decision like this should factor in such questions. No evidence it has.”
Shapiro was dead wrong. As the Atlantic noted in a detailed reported piece posted hours after Shapiro’s tweet, “the push for Trump to make such a move has been going on for more than a year, due to parallel efforts by Israeli officials and members of Congress.”
But whatever. Experts can say anything they like—the Saudis hacked Jeff Bezos’ emails and photos of him and his girlfriend; Jamal Khashoggi was an American journalist; Jussie Smollett was nearly lynched by Trump supporters; Brett Kavanaugh was part of a rape gang, etc., etc. And reporters will print it, and editors will shrug, because that’s what the press is now—a pass-through mechanism mostly used for manipulative, ill-informed and often nonsensical propaganda.
Americans still want and need accurate information on which to base their decisions about their own lives and the path that the country should take. But neither the legacy media nor the expert class it sustains is likely to survive the post-dossier era in any recognizable form. For them, Russiagate is an extinction level event.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).