In her new campaign memoir, What Happened, Hillary Clinton reveals that she has followed “every twist and turn of the story,” and “read everything I could get my hands on,” concerning Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. “I do wonder sometimes about what would have happened if President Obama had made a televised address to the nation in the fall of 2016 warning that our democracy was under attack,” she writes.
Clinton has had a lot to take in. Since Election Day, the controversy over alleged Russian meddling and Trump campaign collusion has consumed Washington and the national media. Yet nearly one year later there is still no concrete evidence of its central allegations. There are claims by US intelligence officials that the Russian government hacked e-mails and used social media to help elect Donald Trump, but there has yet to be any corroboration. Although the oft-cited January intelligence report “uses the strongest language and offers the most detailed assessment yet,” The Atlantic observed that “it does not or cannot provide evidence for its assertions.” Noting the “absence of any proof” and “hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack,” The New York Times concluded that the intelligence community’s message “essentially amounts to ‘trust us.’” That remains the case today.
The same holds for the question of collusion. Officials acknowledged to Reuters in May that “they had seen no evidence of wrongdoing or collusion between the campaign and Russia in the communications reviewed so far.” Well-placed critics of Trump—including former DNI chief James Clapper, former CIA director Michael Morrell, Representative Maxine Waters, and Senator Dianne Feinstein—concur to date.
Recognizing this absence of evidence helps examine what has been substituted in its place. Shattered, the insider account of the Clinton campaign, reports that “in the days after the election, Hillary declined to take responsibility for her own loss.” Instead, one source recounted, aides were ordered “to make sure all these narratives get spun the right way.” Within 24 hours of Clinton’s concession speech, top officials gathered “to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up.… Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument.”
But the focus on Russia has utility far beyond the Clinton camp. It dovetails with elements of state power that oppose Trump’s call for improved relations with Moscow and who are willing to deploy a familiar playbook of Cold War fearmongering to block any developments on that front. The multiple investigations and anonymous leaks are also a tool to pacify an erratic president whose anti-interventionist rhetoric—by all indications, a ruse—alarmed foreign-policy elites during the campaign. Corporate media outlets driven by clicks and ratings are inexorably drawn to the scandal. The public is presented with a real-life spy thriller, which for some carries the added appeal of possibly undoing a reviled president and his improbable victory.
These imperatives have incentivized a compromised set of journalistic and evidentiary standards. In Russiagate, unverified claims are reported with little to no skepticism. Comporting developments are cherry-picked and overhyped, while countervailing ones are minimized or ignored. Front-page headlines advertise explosive and incriminating developments, only to often be undermined by the article’s content, or retracted entirely. Qualified language—likely, suspected, apparent—appears next to “Russians” to account for the absence of concrete links. As a result, Russiagate has enlarged into a storm of innuendo that engulfs issues far beyond its original scope.
The latest two stories about alleged Trump campaign collusion were initially received as smoking guns. But upon further examination, they may actually undermine that narrative. One was news that Trump had signed a non-binding letter of intent to license his name for a proposed building in Moscow as he ran for the White House. Russian-born developer Felix Sater predicted to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that the deal would help Trump win the presidency. “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Sater wrote, believing that voters would be impressed that Trump could make a real-estate deal with the United States’ “most difficult adversary.” The New York Times describes the outcome:
There is no evidence in the emails that Mr. Sater delivered on his promises, and one email suggests that Mr. Sater overstated his Russian ties. In January 2016, Mr. Cohen wrote to Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, asking for help restarting the Trump Tower project, which had stalled. But Mr. Cohen did not appear to have Mr. Peskov’s direct email, and instead wrote to a general inbox for press inquiries.
The project never got government permits or financing, and died weeks later.
Peskov has confirmed he ended up seeing the e-mail from Cohen, but did not bother to respond. The story does raise a potential conflict of interest: Trump pursued a Moscow deal as he praised Putin on the campaign trial. But it is hard to see how a deal that never got off the ground is of more importance than actual deals Trump made in places like Turkey, the Philippines, and the Persian Gulf. If anything, the story should introduce skepticism into whether any collusion took place: The deal failed, and Trump’s lawyer did not even have an e-mail address for his Russian counterparts.
The revelation of Sater’s e-mails to Cohen followed the earlier controversy of Rob Goldstone offering Donald Trump Jr. incriminating information on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Goldstone’s e-mail was more fruitful than Sater’s in that it yielded a meeting, albeit one that Trump Jr. claims he abandoned after 20 minutes. Those who deem the Sater-Goldstone e-mail chains incriminating or even treasonous should be reminded of their provenance: Sater is known as “a canny operator and a colorful bullshitter” who has “launched a host of crudely named websites—including IAmAFaggot.com and VaginaBoy.com… to attack a former business partner.” Meanwhile, Goldstone is a British tabloid journalist turned music publicist. One does not have to be an intelligence expert to doubt that they are Kremlin cut-outs.
Then there is Facebook’s disclosure that fake accounts “likely operated out of Russia” paid $100,000 for 3,000 ads starting in June 2015. The New York Times editorial board described it as “further evidence of what amounted to unprecedented foreign invasion of American democracy.” A $100,000 Facebook ad buy seems unlikely to have had much impact in a $6.8 billion election. According to Facebook, “the vast majority of ads…didn’t specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate” but rather focused “on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum—touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.” Facebook also says the majority of ads, 56 percent, were seen “after the election.” The ads have not been released publicly. But by all indications, if they were used to try to elect Trump, their sponsors took a very curious route.
The ads are commonly described as “Russian disinformation,” but in the most extensive reporting on the story to date, The Washington Post adds multiple qualifiers in noting that the ads “appear to have come from accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency,” itself a Kremlin-linked firm (emphasis added).
The Post also reveals that an initial Facebook review of the suspected Russian accounts found that they “had clear financial motives, which suggested that they weren’t working for a foreign government.” Furthermore, “the security team did not find clear evidence of Russian disinformation or ad purchases by Russian-linked accounts.” But Russiagate logic requires a unique response to absent evidence: “The sophistication of the Russian tactics caught Facebook off-guard.”
The Post adds how Russian “sophistication” was overcome:
As Facebook struggled to find clear evidence of Russian manipulation, the idea was gaining credence in other influential quarters.
In the electrified aftermath of the election, aides to Hillary Clinton and Obama pored over polling numbers and turnout data, looking for clues to explain what they saw as an unnatural turn of events.
One of the theories to emerge from their post-mortem was that Russian operatives who were directed by the Kremlin to support Trump may have taken advantage of Facebook and other social media platforms to direct their messages to American voters in key demographic areas in order to increase enthusiasm for Trump and suppress support for Clinton.
These former advisers didn’t have hard evidence that Russian trolls were using Facebook to micro-target voters in swing districts—at least not yet—but they shared their theories with the House and Senate intelligence committees, which launched parallel investigations into Russia’s role in the presidential campaign in January.
The theories paid off. A personal visit in May by Democratic Senator Mark Warner, vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “spurred the company to make some changes in how it conducted its internal investigation.” Facebook’s announcement in August of finding 3,000 “likely” Russian ads is now an ongoing “scandal” that has dragged the company before Congressional committees.
Other election threats loom. A recent front-page New York Times articlelinking Russian cyber operations to voting irregularities across the United States is headlined, “Russian Election Hacking Efforts, Wider Than Previously Known, Draw Little Scrutiny.” But read on and you’ll discover that there is no evidence of “Russian election hacking,” only evidence-free accusations of it. Voting problems in Durham, North Carolina, “felt like tampering, or some kind of cyberattack,” election monitor Susan Greenhalgh says, and “months later…questions still linger about what happened that day in Durham as well as other counties in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Arizona.” There is one caveat: “There are plenty of other reasons for such breakdowns—local officials blamed human error and software malfunctions—and no clear-cut evidence of digital sabotage has emerged, much less a Russian role in it.”
The evidence-free concern over Russian hacking expanded in late September when the Department of Homeland Security informed 21 states that they had been targeted by Russian cyber-operations during the 2016 election. But three states have already dismissed the DHS claims, including California, which announced that after seeking “further information, it became clear that DHS’s conclusions were wrong.”
Recent elections in France and Germany saw similar fears of Russian hacking and disinformation—and similar results. In France, a hack targeting the campaign of election winner Emmanuel Macron ended up having “no trace,” of Russian involvement, and “was so generic and simple that it could have been practically anyone,” the head of French cyber-security quietly explained after the vote. Germany faced an even more puzzling outcome: Nothing happened. “The apparent absence of a robust Russian campaign to sabotage the German vote has become a mystery among officials and experts who had warned of a likely onslaught,” the Postreported in an article headlined “As Germans prepare to vote, a mystery grows: Where are the Russians?” The mystery was so profound that The New York Times also explored it days later: “German Election Mystery: Why No Russian Meddling?”
Following this evidentiary praxis, Russia can be blamed for matters far beyond Western elections. After the recent white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, foreign-policy consultant Molly McKew issued a widely circulated appeal on Twitter: “We need to have a conversation about what is happening today in Charlottesville & Russian influence, and operations, in the United States.” (McKew recently testified at a US government hearing on “The Scourge of Russian Disinformation.”)
Writing for CNN, Yale Law School’s Asha Rangappa asserted that Charlottesville “highlighted again the problem of Russia.” Sure, Rangappa concedes, “there is no evidence to date that Russia is directly supporting extreme right groups in the United States.” But Russian government ties to the European far-right “when viewed through the lens of Trump’s response to Charlottesville, suggests an opening for Russian intelligence to use domestic hate groups as a vehicle for escalating their active measures inside the United States.”
Linking Russia to right-wing American racists contrasts with just a few months prior, when it was fashionable to tie Russia to the polar opposites. In March, intelligence-community witnesses soberly testified to Congress that Russia’s “21st-century cyber invasion” has “tried to sow unrest in the U.S. by inflaming protests such as Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movement.” The evidence presented for this claim was that both movements were covered by the Russian state-owned television network RT.
Russian-linked tweets about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice show the Russians “trying to push divisiveness in this country,” says Republican Senator James Lankford. A Russian-linked ad about Black Lives Matter aimed at audiences in Ferguson and Baltimore “tells us…that the Russians who bought these ads were sophisticated enough to understand that targeting a Black Lives Matter ad to the communities…would help sow political discord.… the goal here was really about creating chaos,” says CNN reporter Dylan Byers.
But this story might actually tell us a lot more about the attitudes of pundits and lawmakers towards their audiences. On top of the 3,000 ads identified by Facebook, Twitter has now informed Congress of around 200 accounts “linked to Russian interference in the 2016 election.” Twitter has 328 million users. To suggest 200 accounts out of 328 million could have had an impact is as much an insult to common sense as it is to basic math. It also suggests Black Lives Matter protesters in places like Ferguson and Baltimore were unwitting foreign agents who needed Russian social-media prodding to march in the streets. To protest racism is not to sow “chaos” and “political discord,” but to protest racism.
Because the ads may have originated in Russia, it is widely taken for granted that they were part of an alleged Russian government plot. Few have considered a different scenario, pointed out by the journalist Max Blumenthal, that the ads could have been like those from any other troll farm: clickbait to attract page views.
Some who focus on Russiagate may be acting from the real fear and disorientation that follows from the victory of the most unqualified and unpredictable president in history. But those who partake, particularly those in positions of privilege, should consider that Russiagate offers them a safe and anodyne way to “Resist.” For privileged Americans to challenge Trump mainly over Russia is to do so in a way that avoids confronting their own relationship to the economic and political system that many of his voters rebelled against. “If the presidency is effectively a Russian op, if the American presidency right now is the product of collusion between the Russian intelligence services and an American campaign,” to borrow a scenario posed by Rachel Maddow, then there is nothing else to confront.
But economic discontent, along with voter suppression, the Democratic Party’s failures to reach voters, and corporate media that gave endless attention to Trump’s empty promises and racial animus, are among the issues cast aside by the incessant focus on Russigate, as are the very real US-Russia tensions that do not fit the narrative. Amid widespread talk of Putin pulling the strings, Trump has quietly appointed anti-Russia hawks to key posts and admitted a new NATO member over Russian objections. Trump’s top military commander, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is backing an effort by the Pentagon and Congress to arm Ukraine with new weapons. President Obama had rejected a similar proposal out of fear it would inflame the country’s deadly conflict. Just before Russia’s recent war games with allied Belarus, the United States and NATO allies carried out their “biggest military exercise in eastern Europe since the Cold War” right next door.
These tensions only stand to worsen in a political climate in which diplomacy with Russia is seen as a weakness, and in which challenging it through sanctions and militarism is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement. Conflict with a nuclear power may threaten the future annihilation of many, but it offers immediate benefits for some. “NATO concerns about Russia are seen as a positive for the defense industry,” the business press notes in reporting that military stocks have reached “all-time highs.” As have the ratings of MSNBC, the cable network that has pushed Russiagate more than any other.
Those unbound by Russiagate’s offerings need not succumb to them. Trump didn’t get to the White House via Russia, but by falsely portraying himself as a populist champion. The only con he will be undone by is his own.