We're in a permanent coup

Americans might soon wish they just waited to vote their way out of the Trump era

I’ve lived through a few coups. They’re insane, random, and terrifying, like watching sports, except your political future depends on the score.

The kickoff begins when a key official decides to buck the executive. From that moment, government becomes a high-speed head-counting exercise. Who’s got the power plant, the airport, the police in the capital? How many department chiefs are answering their phones? Who’s writing tonight’s newscast?

When the KGB in 1991 tried to reassume control of the crumbling Soviet Union by placing Mikhail Gorbachev under arrest and attempting to seize Moscow, logistics ruled. Boris Yeltsin’s crew drove to the Russian White House in ordinary cars, beating KGB coup plotters who were trying to reach the seat of Russian government in armored vehicles. A key moment came when one of Yeltsin’s men, Alexander Rutskoi – who two years later would himself lead a coup against Yeltsin – prevailed upon a Major in a tank unit to defy KGB orders and turn on the “criminals.”

We have long been spared this madness in America. Our head-counting ceremony was Election Day. We did it once every four years.

That’s all over, in the Trump era.

On Thursday, news broke that two businessmen said to have “peddled supposedly explosive information about corruption involving Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden” were arrested at Dulles airport on “campaign finance violations.” The two figures are alleged to be bagmen bearing “dirt” on Democrats, solicited by Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman will be asked to give depositions to impeachment investigators. They’re reportedly going to refuse. Their lawyer John Dowd also says they will “refuse to appear before House Committees investigating President Donald Trump.” Fruman and Parnas meanwhile claim they had real derogatory information about Biden and other politicians, but “the U.S. government had shown little interest in receiving it through official channels.”

For Americans not familiar with the language of the Third World, that’s two contrasting denials of political legitimacy.

The men who are the proxies for Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani in this story are asserting that “official channels” have been corrupted. The forces backing impeachment, meanwhile, are telling us those same defendants are obstructing a lawful impeachment inquiry.

This latest incident, set against the impeachment mania and the reportedly “expanding” Russiagate investigation of U.S. Attorney John Durham, accelerates our timeline to chaos. We are speeding toward a situation when someone in one of these camps refuses to obey a major decree, arrest order, or court decision, at which point Americans will get to experience the joys of their political futures being decided by phone calls to generals and police chiefs.

My discomfort in the last few years, first with Russiagate and now with Ukrainegate and impeachment, stems from the belief that the people pushing hardest for Trump’s early removal are more dangerous than Trump. Many Americans don’t see this because they’re not used to waking up in a country where you’re not sure who the president will be by nightfall. They don’t understand that this predicament is worse than having a bad president. 

The Trump presidency is the first to reveal a full-blown schism between the intelligence community and the White House. Senior figures in the CIA, NSA, FBI and other agencies made an open break from their would-be boss before Trump’s inauguration, commencing a public war of leaks that has not stopped.

The first big shot was fired in early January, 2017, via a CNN.com headline, “Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him.” This tale, about the January 7th presentation of former British spy Christopher Steele’s report to then-President-elect Trump, began as follows:

Classified documents presented last week to President Obama and President-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump, multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings tell CNN.

Four intelligence chiefs in the FBI’s James Comey, the CIA’s John Brennan, the NSA’s Mike Rogers, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, presented an incoming president with a politically disastrous piece of information, in this case a piece of a private opposition research report.

Among other things because the news dropped at the same time Buzzfeed decided to publish the entire “bombshell” Steele dossier, reporters spent that week obsessing not about the mode of the story’s release, but about the “claims.” In particular, audiences were rapt by allegations that Russians were trying to blackmail Trump with evidence of a golden shower party commissioned on a bed once slept upon by Barack Obama himself.

Twitter exploded. No other news story mattered. For the next two years, the “claims” of compromise and a “continuing” Trump-Russian “exchange” hung over the White House like a sword of Damocles. 

Few were interested in the motives for making this story public. As it turned out, there were two explanations, one that was made public, and one that only came out later. The public justification as outlined in the CNN piece, was to “make the President-elect aware that such allegations involving him [were] circulating among intelligence agencies.”

However, we know from Comey’s January 7, 2017 memo to deputy Andrew McCabe and FBI General Counsel James Baker there was another explanation. Comey wrote:

I said I wasn’t saying this was true, only that I wanted [Trump] to know both that it had been reported and that the reports were in many hands. I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook. I said it was important that we not give them the excuse to write that the FBI has the material or [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close-hold.

Imagine if a similar situation had taken place in January of 2009, involving president-elect Barack Obama. Picture a meeting between Obama and the heads of the CIA, NSA, and FBI, along with the DIA, in which the newly-elected president is presented with a report complied by, say, Judicial Watch, accusing him of links to al-Qaeda. Imagine further that they tell Obama they are presenting him with this information to make him aware of a blackmail threat, and to reassure him they won’t give news agencies a “hook” to publish the news.

Now imagine if that news came out on Fox days later. Imagine further that within a year, one of the four officials became a paid Fox contributor. Democrats would lose their minds in this set of circumstances.

The country mostly did not lose its mind, however, because the episode did not involve a traditionally presidential figure like Obama, nor was it understood to have been directed at the institution of “the White House” in the abstract.

Instead, it was a story about an infamously corrupt individual, Donald Trump, a pussy-grabbing scammer who bragged about using bankruptcy to escape debt and publicly praised Vladimir Putin. Audiences believed the allegations against this person and saw the intelligence/counterintelligence community as acting patriotically, doing their best to keep us informed about a still-breaking investigation of a rogue president.

But a parallel story was ignored. Leaks from the intelligence community most often pertain to foreign policy. The leak of the January, 2017 “meeting” between the four chiefs and Trump – which without question damaged both the presidency and America’s standing abroad – was an unprecedented act of insubordination.

It was also a bold new foray into domestic politics by intelligence agencies that in recent decades began asserting all sorts of frightening new authority. They were kidnapping foreigners, assassinating by drone, conducting paramilitary operations without congressional notice, building an international archipelago of secret prisons, and engaging in mass warrantless surveillance of Americans. We found out in a court case just last week how extensive the illegal domestic surveillance has been, with the FBI engaging in tens of thousands of warrantless searches involving American emails and phone numbers under the guise of combating foreign subversion.

The agencies’ new trick is inserting themselves into domestic politics using leaks and media pressure. The “intel chiefs” meeting was just the first in a series of similar stories, many following the pattern in which a document was created, passed from department from department, and leaked. A sample:

  • February 14, 2017: “four current and former officials” tell the New York Times the Trump campaign had “repeated contacts” with Russian intelligence.

  • March 1, 2017: “Justice Department officials” tell the Washington Post Attorney General Jeff Sessions “spoke twice with Russia’s ambassador” and did not disclose the contacts ahead of his confirmation hearing. 

  • March 18, 2017: “people familiar with the matter” tell the Wall Street Journal that former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn failed to disclose a “contact” with a Russian at Cambridge University, an episode that “came to the notice of U.S. intelligence.”

  • April 8, 2017, 2017: “law enforcement and other U.S. officials” tell the Washington Post the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge had ruled there was “probable cause” to believe former Trump aide Carter Page was an “agent of a foreign power.” 

  • April 13, 2017: a “source close to UK intelligence” tells Luke Harding at The Guardian that the British analog to the NSA, the GCHQ, passed knowledge of “suspicious interactions” between “figures connected to Trump and “known or suspected Russian agents” to Americans as part of a “routine exchange of information.”

  • December 17, 2017: “four current and former American and foreign officials” tell the New York Times that during the 2016 campaign, an Australian diplomat named Alexander Downer told “American counterparts” that former Trump aide George Papadopoulos revealed “Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.

  • April 13, 2018: “two sources familiar with the matter” tell McClatchy that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office has evidence Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was in Prague in 2016, “confirming part of [Steele] dossier.”

  • November 27, 2018: a “well-placed source” tells Harding at The Guardian that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

  • January 19, 2019: “former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation” tell the New York Times the FBI opened an inquiry into the “explosive implications” of whether or not Donald Trump was working on behalf of the Russians.

To be sure, “people familiar with the matter” leaked a lot of true stories in the last few years, but many were clearly problematic even at the time of release. Moreover, all took place in the context of constant, hounding pressure from media figures, congressional allies like Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, as well as ex-officials who could make use of their own personal public platforms in addition to being unnamed sources in straight news reports. They used commercial news platforms to argue that Trump had committed treason, needed to be removed from office, and preferably also indicted as soon as possible.

A shocking number of these voices were former intelligence officers who joined Clapper in becoming paid news contributors. Op-ed pages and news networks are packed now with ex-spooks editorializing about stories in which they had personal involvement: Michael Morell, Michael Hayden, Asha Rangappa, and Andrew McCabe among many others, including especially all four of the original “intel chiefs”: Clapper, Rogers, Comey, and MSNBC headliner John Brennan.

Russiagate birthed a whole brand of politics, a government-in-exile, which prosecuted its case against Trump via a constant stream of “approved” leaks, partisans in congress, and an increasingly unified and thematically consistent set of commercial news outlets.

These mechanisms have been transplanted now onto the Ukrainegate drama. It’s the same people beating the public drums, with the messaging run out of the same congressional committees, through the same Nadlers, Schiffs, and Swalwells. The same news outlets are on full alert.

The sidelined “intel chiefs” are once again playing central roles in making the public case. Comey says “we may now be at a point” where impeachment is necessary. Brennan, with unintentional irony, says the United States is “no longer a democracy.” Clapper says the Ukraine whistleblower complaint is “one of the most credible” he’s seen.

As a reporter covering the 2015–2016 presidential race, I thought Trump’s campaign was disturbing on many levels, but logical as a news story. He succeeded for class reasons, because of flaws in the media business that gifted him mass amounts of coverage, and because he took cunning advantage of long-simmering frustrations in the electorate. He also clearly catered to racist fears, and to the collapse in trust in institutions like the news media, the Fed, corporations, NATO, and, yes, the intelligence services. In enormous numbers, voters rejected everything they had ever been told about who was and was not qualified for higher office.

Trump’s campaign antagonism toward the military and intelligence world was at best a millimeter thick. Like almost everything else he said as a candidate, it was a gimmick, designed to get votes. That he was insincere and full of it and irresponsible, at first at least, when he attacked the “deep state” and the “fake news media,” doesn’t change the reality of what’s happened since. Even paranoiacs have enemies, and even Donald “Deep State” Trump is a legitimately elected president whose ouster is being actively sought by the intelligence community.

Trump stands accused of using the office of the presidency to advance political aims, in particular pressuring Ukraine to investigate potential campaign rival Joe Biden. He’s guilty, but the issue is how guilty, in comparison to his accusers.

Trump, at least insofar as we know, has not used section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor political rivals. He hasn’t deployed human counterintelligence “informants” to follow the likes of Hunter Biden. He hasn’t maneuvered to secure Special Counsel probes of Democrats.

And while Donald Trump conducting foreign policy based on what he sees on Fox and Friends is troubling, it’s not in the same ballpark as CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times engaging in de facto coverage partnerships with the FBI and CIA to push highly politicized, phony narratives like Russiagate.

Trump’s tinpot Twitter threats and cancellation of White House privileges for dolts like Jim Acosta also don’t begin to compare to the danger posed by Facebook, Google, and Twitter – under pressure from the Senate – organizing with groups like the Atlantic Council to fight “fake news” in the name of preventing the “foment of discord.”

I don’t believe most Americans have thought through what a successful campaign to oust Donald Trump would look like. Most casual news consumers can only think of it in terms of Mike Pence becoming president. The real problem would be the precedent of a de facto intelligence community veto over elections, using the lunatic spookworld brand of politics that has dominated the last three years of anti-Trump agitation.

CIA/FBI-backed impeachment could also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Donald Trump thinks he’s going to be jailed upon leaving office, he’ll sooner or later figure out that his only real move is to start acting like the “dictator” MSNBC and CNN keep insisting he is. Why give up the White House and wait to be arrested, when he still has theoretical authority to send Special Forces troops rappelling through the windows of every last Russiagate/Ukrainegate leaker? That would be the endgame in a third world country, and it’s where we’re headed, unless someone calls off this craziness. Welcome to the Permanent Power Struggle.

Image by Donkey Hotey

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Latest Russian spy story looks like another elaborate media deception

The tale of Oleg Smolenkov is just the latest load of high-level BS dumped on us by intelligence agencies

When I was 20, I studied at the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. Most of the Russians I met were amusingly free of stress caused by following news. Why would they bother? Bull-factories like Rossiskaya Gazeta and Leningradsaya Pravda were basically collections of dreary government news releases rewritten to sound like news reports.

I saw newspapers in Leningrad shredded into slivers of toilet paper, used in place of curtains in dorm rooms, even stuffed into overcoat linings as insulation. But I can’t recall a Russian person actually reading a Soviet newspaper for the content. That’s how useless its “news” was.

We’re headed to a similar place. The cable networks, along with the New York Times and Washington Post increasingly act like house organs of the government, and in particular the intelligence agencies.

An episode this week involving a tale of a would-be American spy “exfiltrated” from Russia solidifies this impression. Seldom has a news story been more transparently fraudulent.

The story was broken by CNN Monday, September 9th, under the headline, “Exclusive: US extracted top spy from inside Russia in 2017”:

In a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the United States successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government, multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge told CNN.

CNN’s lede relayed multiple key pieces of information, not one of which was really emphasized in the main of its unconfirmable story:

  • America not only had a spy inside Russia’s government, it had multiple spies, with the subject of this particular piece being merely one of America’s “highest level” sources

  • The “extraction” was completed “successfully”

  • The sources are “multiple Trump administration officials”

The story told us our spy agencies successfully penetrated Russian government at the highest levels (although apparently not well enough to foresee or forestall the election interference campaign the same agencies spent the last three years howling about).

We were also told the agencies saved an invaluable human source back in 2017, and that the story came from inside the Trump administration. But the big sell came in the second and third paragraphs (emphasis mine):

The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, concerning ISIS in Syria, had been provided by Israel.

The disclosure to the Russians by the President, though not about the Russian spy specifically, prompted intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions about the potential risk of exposure…

So great was this spy of ours, we were told, that he had “access to Putin” and “could even provide images of documents on the Russian leader’s desk.” This was “according to CNN’s sources,” an interesting attribution given passages like this:

The source was considered the highest-level source for the US inside the Kremlin, high up in the national security infrastructure, according to the source familiar with the matter and a former senior intelligence official.

It’s a characteristic of third world countries to have the intelligence world and the media be intertwined enough that it’s not always clear whether the reporters and the reported-about are the same people. When you turn on the TV in Banana Republics, you’re never sure which group is talking to you.

We’re now in that same paradigm in America. CNN has hired nearly a dozen former intelligence or counterintelligence officials as analysts in the last few years. Their big get was former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, but they also now have former deputy FBI chief Andrew McCabe, former FBI counsel James Baker, and multiple former CIA, NSA, and NSC officials.

Meanwhile, former CIA director John Brennan has an MSNBC/NBC gig, as does former CIA and DOD chief of staff Jeremy Bash, and several other ex-spooks. The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, who doubles as the CEO of one of America’s largest intelligence contractors.

This odious situation is similar to 2003-2004, when cable networks were tossing contributor deals to every ex-general and ex-spook they could find while they were reporting on the Iraq invasion. At one point, FAIR.org found that 52 percent of the sources in network newscasts were current or former government officials.

The numbers now aren’t quite that skewed, but CNN and MSNBC both employ former senior intelligence officials who comment upon stories in which they had direct involvement, especially the Russia investigation.

The CNN piece about the exfiltrated spy quotes a “former senior intelligence official,” a ubiquitous character that has become modern America’s version of the Guy Fawkes mask. I asked the network what their position was on whether or not they felt obligated to make a disclosure when (or if) a source was one of their own employees. They haven’t responded. 

Within hours after the CNN report broke, the New York Times had a triple-bylined piece out entitled, “C.I.A. Informant Extracted From Russia Had Sent Secrets to U.S. for Decades.” Written by three of their top national security writers, Adam Goldman, Julian Barnes and David Sanger, the story repeated the CNN information, but with a crucial difference:

C.I.A. officials worried about safety made the arduous decision in late 2016 to offer to extract the source from Russia. The situation grew more tense when the informant at first refused, citing family concerns…

CNN reported (and continues to report) that the “decision” to remove the spy came “soon after a May 2017 meeting.” The Times, based on interviews with its own batch of “current and former officials,” insisted the “arduous decision” came in “late 2016.” The Times noted the source “at first refused” to be extracted, explaining the delay in his removal.

How to understand all of this? A Washington Post story by Shane Harris and Ellen Nakashima released at 6:06 the next morning, “U.S. got key asset out of Russia following election hacking,” came up with the final formula. To see the complex, absurd rhetorical construction in full, one unfortunately has to quote at length:

In 2017, the United States extracted from Russia an important CIA source…

The exfiltration took place sometime after an Oval Office meeting in May 2017, when President Trump revealed highly classified counterterrorism information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador...

That disclosure alarmed U.S. national security officials, but it was not the reason for the decision to remove the CIA asset, who had provided information to the United States for more than a decade, according to the current and former officials.

The old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials used the tagline, “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter.” This Post story is, “You got your 2016 decision in my 2017 exfiltration!”

The paper brazenly fuses two unconnected narratives, telling us that a spy who had provided valuable information in 2016 was extracted in early 2017, after the Trump-Lavrov meeting. While that sequence may be chronologically correct, the story’s own authors say the Trump-Lavrov meeting was “not the reason” for the exfiltration. So why mention it? Moreover, who was this person, and what was the real reason his removal from Russia was necessary?

On Tuesday, September 10th, the Russian newspaper Kommersant* disclosed the name of the spy. They identified him as a mid-level Foreign Ministry official named Oleg Smolenkov.

Was Smolenkov a “very valuable agent”? Maybe, but Kommersant – amusingly, playing the same role as transparent mouthpiece for security organs – said no. They quoted a Russian foreign ministry official saying, “Let the CIA prove this.” As to Trump disclosing secrets to Lavrov in that meeting, the official told the Russian paper, “CNN never before thought up such nonsense,” adding that it was “pure paranoia.”

Kommersant further related that Russians instituted a murder case over the disappearance of Smolenkov and his family in 2017.

Disappear, however, Smolenkov did not. He went from Russia to Montenegro in 2017, then ended up in Virginia, where he and his family bought a house in Stafford, Virginia in January of 2019, in his own name! This is the same person about whom the Times this past Monday wrote:

The person’s life remains in danger, current and former officials said, pointing to Moscow’s attempts last year to assassinate Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian intelligence official who moved to Britain as part of a high-profile spy exchange in 2010…

Smolenkov was so afraid for his safety, he put his family in a house the FSB could see by clicking on Realtor.com! That’s “tradecraft” for you.

To recap: U.S. officials decided to exfiltrate a spy capable of transmitting pictures from Vladimir Putin’s desk (why are we telling audiences this, by the way?) because… why? Although all three of the initial major American news stories about this referenced Trump’s May 2017 meeting with Sergei Lavrov, the actual reason was buried in the text of all three pieces:

In the Times:

But former intelligence officials said there was no public evidence that Mr. Trump directly endangered the source, and other current American officials insisted that media scrutiny of the agency’s sources alone was the impetus for the extraction.

The Post:

In January 2017, the Obama administration published a detailed assessment that unambiguously laid the blame on the Kremlin…

“It’s quite likely,” the official continued, “that the U.S. intelligence community would already be taking a hard look at extracting any U.S. assets who would have been subject to increased levels of scrutiny” after the assessment’s publication.

CNN:

A US official said before the secret operation there was media speculation about the existence of such a covert source, and such coverage or public speculation poses risks to the safety of anyone a foreign government suspects may be involved. This official did not identify any public reporting to that effect at the time of this decision and CNN could not find any related reference in media reports.

That last passage by CNN, in which the network claimed it could not find “any related reference” to a secret source in media reports, is laughable.

Unnamed “senior intelligence officials” spent much of the early months of the Trump administration bragging their faces off about their supposed penetration of the Kremlin. Many of their leaks were designed to throw shade on the new pompadour-in-chief, casting him as a Putin puppet. A January 5, 2017 piece in the Washington Post is a classic example:

Senior officials in the Russian government celebrated Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton as a geopolitical win for Moscow, according to U.S. officials who said that American intelligence agencies intercepted communications in the aftermath of the election in which Russian officials congratulated themselves on the outcome.

We’re constantly told the intelligence agencies can’t reveal classified details out of fear of disclosing “sources and methods,” but this story revealed a very specific capability. If that “Russians celebrating Trump’s win” tale came from a person, it wouldn’t be long before the source’s head would be found in Park Sokolniki.

A more revealing Washington Post piece came in June, 2017. It was called “Obama’s Secret Struggle to Punish Russia for Putin’s Election Assault.” In that article, we’re told at length about how Brennan secured a “feat of espionage,” obtaining sourcing “deep within the Russian government” that provided him, Brennan, with insights into Russian’s electoral interference campaign.

Brennan, the Post said, considered the source’s intel so valuable that he reportedly hand-delivered its “eyes only” bombshell contents directly to Barack Obama in summer of 2016. This was before the story was told to the whole world less than a year later.

In that Post article, it was revealed that the October 2016 assessment of Russia’s role in an electoral interference campaign initially was directly tied to Putin, but Putin’s name was removed because it might “endanger intelligence sources and methods.”

Taken in sum, all of these facts suggest it wasn’t at all Donald Trump’s meeting with Sergei Lavrov that necessitated the “exfiltration.

(Side note: many of these spy stories are larded with Tom Clancy-style verbiage to make the reader feel sexier and more in the know. The CNN story, for instance, ludicrously told us that a covert source was also “known as an asset.” Derp – thanks!).

What is this all really about? We have an idea only because Brennan and Clapper aren’t the only ex-spooks pipelining info to friendlies in the media.

As noted by former CIA analyst Ray McGovern and others, Attorney General William Barr earlier this year directed the Justice Department and former Connecticut Attorney General John Durham to investigate the intelligence agencies. In June, the New York Times wrote:

Mr. Barr has been interested in how the C.I.A. drew its conclusions about Russia’s election sabotage, particularly the judgment that Mr. Putin ordered that operatives help Mr. Trump by discrediting his opponent, Hillary Clinton, according to current and former American officials.

The Times quoted former CIA officials who expressed “anxiety” about this inquiry:

While the Justice Department review is not a criminal inquiry, it has provoked anxiety in the ranks of the C.I.A., according to former officials. Senior agency officials have questioned why the C.I.A.’s analytical work should be subjected to a federal prosecutor’s scrutiny. 

We know, because it was bragged about at length in hagiographic portrayals in papers like the Washington Post, that John Brennan was the source of the conclusion that Putin directed the interference. We were even told that the determination of Putin’s involvement was too dangerous to publish in late 2016, because it would compromise Brennan’s magical Kremlin mole.

Now, suddenly, we’re treated to a series of stories that try to assert that the mole was removed either completely or in part because of Trump.

Maybe there’s an element of truth there. But it’s astonishing that none of the major news outlets bothered, even as an insincere gesture to convention, to address this story’s obvious counter-narrative.

If the mole was even that important, which I’m not convinced of – as McGovern told me this week, “They make stuff up all the time” – it seems more than possible we lost this “asset” because our intelligence chiefs felt it necessary to spend late 2016 and early 2017 spilling details about our capabilities in the news media.

This story wasn’t leaked to tell the public an important story about a lost source in the Kremlin, but more likely as damage control, to work the refs as investigators examine the origins of the election interference tale.

In 2017-2018, the likes of Brennan and Clapper were regularly feeding bombshell news stories to major papers and TV stations, usually as unnamed sources. The ostensible subject of these tales was usually Russian interference or collusion, but the subtext was a squalid power struggle between the enforcement bureaucracy and its loathed new executive, Trump.

After this “exfiltration story” broke, Esquire columnist Charlie Pierce, a colleague with whom I’ve sadly disagreed about this Russia business, wrote a poignant piece called “The Spies Are Acting as a Check on Our Elected Leaders. This Is Neither Healthy Nor Sustainable.”

In it, Charlie said something out loud that few have been willing to say out loud:

My guess is that the leak of this remarkable story came from somewhere in the bowels of the intelligence community…

The intelligence community is engaged in a cold war of information against the elected political leadership of the country, and a lot of us are finding ourselves on its side. This is neither healthy nor sustainable.

I personally don’t see myself as being on either side of this Cold War, but his point is true. He’s thinking about the country, but there’s the more immediate question of our business. A situation where the newspapers and airwaves are not for relaying facts but for firing sorties in an internecine power struggle really is unsustainable.

It won’t be long before audiences realize they’re not reading true news stories but what the Russians call versii, or “versions.” Whether it’s the pro-Trump wasteland of Fox or the Brennan-Clapper government-in-exile we see on MSNBC and CNN and in the Washington Post, the news has become two different nations, both intensely self-interested, neither honest. If this continues, it won’t be long before we’re filling overcoats and bird cages with things we used to read.

NOTE: Larry Johnson of Sic Semper Tyrannis added a lot on this topic, offering the impressions of a fellow intelligence officer in reviewing the story:

Regardless of the quality of his reporting, Smolenkov is the kind of recruited source that looks good on paper and helps a CIA case officer get promoted but adds little to actual U.S. intelligence on Russia…

[The] competing explanations for what prompted the exfiltration of this CIA asset say more about the incompetence of Barack Obama and his intel chiefs, John Brennan and Jim Clapper in particular…

Johnson’s conclusion suggests the motive for this story coming out now is to spin news that may come out of the Durham and Horowitz investigations:

This kind of chaotic leaking about an old intel op is symptomatic of panic. CIA is already officially denying key parts of the story. My money is on John Brennan and Jim Clapper as the likely impetus for these reports. They are hoping to paint Trump as a national security threat and distract from the upcoming revelations from the DOJ Inspector General report on the FISA warrants and, more threatening, the decisions that Prosecutor John Durham will take...

I have doubts about how much might ultimately come out of the various Russiagate-origins investigations. However, we have seen repeatedly that sources on both sides of the Russia affair will leak tales to major outlets in an effort to get ahead of news created by official probes. This went on before James Comey’s congressional testimony in June of 2017, before Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s testimony, ahead of investigations into the use of FISA warrants, and countless times in connection with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s inquiry (often from people questioned by Mueller).

In the Smolenkov story, noise is getting back to reporters by way of the “ranks of the C.I.A.,” as the Times put it, i.e. from the officials who are ostensibly being questioned as part of Durham’s probe. It’s reasonable to assume that the public airing of this old tale is somehow connected to those investigations. This makes it striking that none of the mainstream news accounts bothered to even mention the ongoing Russia probes as context — a glaring problem in a story where “Why is this coming out now?” is the first question readers need answering to make sense of the news.


* Full disclosure: I wrote for Kommersant a few times in 2003-2004, in an unsuccessful effort to try to write humorously about American politics for Russians.

Image by Gage Skidmore

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The rise and fall of superhero Robert Mueller

The testimony of Robert Mueller should have marked the end of a national nightmare. Instead, a new legend was born

The change came in the space of a single news cycle. Beginning before and ending after the congressional testimony of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the depth of America’s faith-based mania was laid bare. The Russiagate press managed to turn reality all the way around.

In the moment, while the event was being broadcast live, the assessment of the ex-FBI director’s performance as a congressional witness was nearly unanimous. Mueller was a confused, vulnerable human being, not an indefatigable force. 

“Very, very painful,” said longtime Democratic strategist David Axelrod.

“I don’t know what the #Dems were expecting from #RobertMueller, but this probably isn’t it,” tweeted Howard Fineman.

“Mueller is struggling,” former prosecutor and Mueller subordinate Glenn Kirchner commented during the event. “It strikes me as a health issue.”

This was a monstrous indictment of media. The Special Counsel’s inability to follow questions or remember key details (he was “not familiar” with oppo firm Fusion-GPS!) exploded two years of hype.

Mueller was sold in hundreds of articles and TV features as earth’s most competent human, a real-life superhero. His close-lipped manner and razor intellect supposedly presented a living antidote to our blabbermouth numbskull president, Donald Trump. He was as a character straight out of Team America, an ex-Marine FBI chief by way of St. Paul’s, Princeton, and a grad program at the University of Awesome. “Batman is back to save America,” his former FBI second Timothy Murphy said in a typical story from two years ago, describing Mueller as “the hero America needs.”

This myth died on television.

It happened by mistake, the kind that’s always a risk when you’re dealing with live broadcasts, as even censorious societies like the Soviet Union have found. Congressional Democrats like House Judiciary chief Jerrold Nadler and Adam Schiff of the Intelligence committee thought a TV show would bring the Mueller report “to life.”

How these two goofs didn’t know, or bother to find out, that Mueller was not up for the task of following difficult questions is hard to understand. Nadler and Schiff are both lawyers. A first-year law student wouldn’t put a witness on stand blind like that for a minute, let alone seven nationally-televised hours.

But they pressed on, convinced the Special Counsel could breathe new life into a case they believed had waned only because Mueller’s long report was a “dry, prosecutorial work product” that the public couldn’t or wouldn’t digest.

This in itself was crazy. Hopeful blue-staters across the country for months have indulged in readings of Mueller’s report like it was the word of God – with celebrity jackasses like Annette Bening, John Lithgow and Kevin Kline donning Rick Perry-style smart glasses to conduct televised deliverance of the gospel.

The report has been hyped plenty. It’s sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has now been on the New York Times bestseller list for thirteen weeks. In #Resistance America it’s as ubiquitous as Gideon’s Bible. What Nadler and Schiff seem to have wanted was something beyond familiarity with the work, like video of Mueller calling Trump a crook that could be used in commercials.  

Instead, they revealed something no one expected. Now we understood why the Special Counsel avoided live exchanges across two years of being one of the most famous people on earth.

When Mueller’s morning session in Nadler’s committee ended, NBC’s studio seemed like a funeral parlor.

“If, uh, Democrats were looking for a pristine ten to fifteen second sound bite that made the point they wanted to make, uh, it probably didn’t happen,” said Lester Holt.

Chuck Todd, who along with colleague Rachel Maddow has been one of the most energetic Russigate torchbearers, offered that on the bringing-Mueller-to-life front, the testimony was “a complete failure.” He added it “didn’t do anything to help” impeachment arguments.

Within 48 hours, national consensus was completely reversed. It was breathtaking.

“Mueller didn’t fail. The country did,” wrote Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post. Her key passage, which would become a point stressed by many, complained about the over-focus on “optics”:

The “failure” is not of a prosecutor who found the facts but might be ill equipped to make the political case, but instead, of a country that won’t read his report and a media obsessed with scoring contests rather than focusing on the damning facts at issue.

In a heartbeat this idea spread everywhere. “Robert Mueller and the tyranny of ‘optics’” blared The Atlantic.  “Forget the theater criticism – Mueller’s conclusions are the real news,” wrote colleague David Graham. “Jeffries dismisses optics: We wanted testimony from Mueller, not Robert de Niro,” chimed in The Hill.

It became a de rigeur media and social media observation to say the hearing wasn’t a disaster, that Mueller in fact moved the ball forward, his mighty reputation intact. He’d been in a difficult position, you see, and fighting evil, not movie acting, is his thing. The Daily Beast said so with this headline and lede:

Robert Mueller, Trump Hunter

Really, there were Democrats angry with Special Counsel Robert Mueller for being Robert Mueller Wednesday morning before the House Judiciary Committee? Are we so unaccustomed to a modest public servant speaking honestly in a measured voice that it enrages us…?

Writer Margaret Carlson insisted Mueller had been asked to deliver the impossible, tasked with “saving the big game with Hail Mary passes in the fourth quarter.” However, she said, he “was never going to throw the long ball” (metaphor production has soared in the Mueller period). The problem wasn’t with Mueller, but with us, for failing to “manage expectations.”

As such, Mueller was not merely Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, but also “Moses on the Mount, delivering the Ten Commandments but not dramatizing them.” Moreover, in a predictable development, pundits insisted the rumors of Mueller’s disappointing testimony were vicious lies perpetrated by Republicans in league with (or “on their knees” for) Trump.

Mueller was back to being both a sacred figure and superhero (in America, the prophet is always also an ass-kicking leading man). This took two days. Three days after his testimony, Kathleen Parker was arguing in the Washington Post that Mueller’s “forbearance” on the stand made him deserving of the Medal of Honor. The following passage was actually published by someone self-identifying as a journalist:

The close-up of Mueller’s face was a portrait of rare depth, the sort one is more likely to find on a Leonardo da Vinci canvas with all its shadows, hollows and his soulful, nearly weeping eyes. I found myself thinking of paintings of the Agony in the Garden, showing Jesus’ upturned face as he prayed.

Mueller on the stand was a potted plant. Reporters saw Moses and Jesus.  If you need evidence we’re in a religious mania, look no further. This was a pure exercise in restoring an idol for worship.

It was also a metaphor for the Russiagate narrative. Mueller’s legend was built without any of his hagiographers demanding to speak to the man. Virtually the whole of it was constructed on the word of confederates or anonymous sources. In the manner of priests everywhere since the beginning of time, these sources interpreted for us the secret beliefs, conclusions, and desires of the unavailable man above.   

“It is instructive to hear friends and former colleagues talk about Robert Swan Mueller III,” wrote Time when giving the Mueller third place in its Person of the Year issue. Mueller was a figure of such great gravity, we were told, he does not deign to speech:

Mueller, they say, is the kind of man who flicks the lights off and on at his home to inform guests that it’s time to leave a social gathering…

Citizens were urged to find truth, justice, and integrity not in Mueller’s words, but in his hair. “Mueller’s hair is one little shining piece of sanity in a sea of madness,” a portrait artist told the AP. “So precise and sober and straightforward and without deceit…”

The same article interviewed a woman named Alicia Barrett whose son bought a Labrador puppy for Christmas:

“The strong, silent type,” Barnett observed. And then she named him Mueller, an homage to the stoic special prosecutor appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election…

Mueller’s silence turned out to be more genuinely Labrador-like than Barnett and everyone else was led to believe. A media legend of immense dimensions was built without anyone first making sure there was a there there. Sound familiar?

Fellow journalists who think they’re aiding an anti-Trump resistance by keeping the empty piñata of Russiagate raised to the rafters couldn’t be more wrong. This story is Trump’s best friend. As opposed to the Mueller probe, which was an immediate legal threat to the president and his family, Trump on some level must be dying for impeachment.

Heading into an election year, nothing would suit him more than the protracted media spectacle of Democrats trying to break down the walls of the White House with a noodle.

Instead of spending next year campaigning against a policy wonk like Elizabeth Warren or a populist like Bernie Sanders (it’s safe to say Trump would look forward to a run against verbal mistake-factory Joe Biden), he’ll be running against a parade of fourth-raters in and around the party who spent Trump’s presidency rejecting real-world concerns of voters and throwing political capital into a dead-end conspiracy theory.

Less than 1% of voters now consider “the Russia situation” the most serious issue facing the country. This isn’t a new development. Polls consistently showed this to be the case across the last few years, including earlier this winter, before Mueller’s probe ended without further indictments.

In other words, even when voters in both parties knew charges could be filed at any moment, this issue rated below the economy, immigration, civil rights, health care, and other concerns. In mid-March, just before Mueller’s probe wrapped up, CNN found a whopping zero percent of Americans identified “Russian investigation” as their primary concern heading into 2020. The network wrote (emphasis mine):

The CNN poll…  asked respondents to describe one issue that would be the most important to them when deciding whom to support in next year’s presidential election. The Russia investigation didn’t register in the results.

The above was the fifteenth paragraph in CNN’s story. Talk about burying the lede! Instead of Poll: Americans Don’t Give a Shit About Russiagate, the headline read, “Americans want Mueller’s report release and approve of his work. But their minds are made up about Trump.”

The only people who really care about this story are DC politicians, Twitter, people who don’t have bills to worry about (like Hollywood actors), and the news media, which continues to put this story front and center. Ratings are one reason, but people like Jake Tapper and Chris Cuomo have probably also seen Red Sparrow too many times.*

The conspiracy tale has validated every Trump criticism about both crooked media and the deep state. The whole narrative is the brainchild of Clinton hacks, a handful of overzealous intelligence nuts, and a subset of the Democratic Party’s weakest elected minds, in particular murine ex-prosecutor Schiff, a man who should be selling Buicks back in his hometown Burbank.

Take a good look at Schiff, at our paranoid outpatient of an ex-CIA chief John Brennan, and at excuse-making Clinton campaign chief Robby Mook (a.k.a. the captain of the Democratic Titanic), and ask if you really want to be re-writing history for those people.

They’re making the press accomplices in the most imbecilic effort at political opposition in recent American history. Hence the desperate public comments and the string of wacked-out stunts, like putting Mueller under oath. Impeachment will be the next adventure in doubling down blind.

A significant portion of the original conspiracy theory vanished via a series of under-circulated news reports just in the months since the end of the Mueller probe. Remember the Southern District of New York campaign finance probe that arose in connection with Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the one described as a “major danger” to Trump? Remember all that talk about how “Trump can’t run the Mueller playbook on the New York feds?” Experts told us that the Cohen probe posed a “significant threat” of new indictments for Trump and his family.

When that investigation closed with no new charges the same week Mueller testified, the commentariat barely noticed. Same with the Democrats v. Earth lawsuit/publicity stunt, in which the Democratic National Committee sued Trump, the Russian government, and Wikileaks under a RICO claim.

Plaintiffs charged the Trump campaign conspired to steal and release DNC emails. But a federal judge tossed the suit on the grounds that the Trump campaign “did not participate in the theft.” Moreover, the Clinton-appointed judge said published documents were “of public concern” and therefore protected like any other journalistic work product. The judge also ruled that allegations about all the non-Russian defendants (including Wikileaks) were “insufficient to hold them liable” for any illegality involved in obtaining DNC emails.

The end of this years-long gambit only drew a few brief stories in response. The same happened when Mueller in testimony dismissed a zany story about “human activity” detected between a secret server between Trump and Alfa-Bank. Over a dozen news stories covered this tale in length on the way up the news cycle, but dispositive information on the way down drew a shrug.

Russiagate should be dead. Instead, it’s gaining new life, with impeachment looking like the New Testament phase of the religion.


Until Russiagate, Robert Mueller was mainly known to the DC press corps as one of many imperious stiffs who made up George W. Bush’s War on Terror bureaucracy. At the outset of our glorious WMD hunt and in defense of the sweeping surveillance programs we likely still wouldn’t know about if not for Edward Snowden, Mueller effortlessly pushed official lies, conveying the impression of a man who wouldn’t wipe his ass with a congressional oversight committee.

Pious would have been a good word for him even pre-2017. Not many people could take two years of being portrayed as a Godhead on magazine covers and in comedy shows, but the role fit Mueller’s starchy Northeast celibate image like a glove.

The undisguised nature of the religiosity is amazing to look at now. GQ, describing Mueller as someone who embodied the “boy scout ideal” of “the absolute fairness of the lawful good,” wrote the following:

We may decide, in the end, that we do not want to know Robert Mueller; we may even take comfort in the fact that there may not be much of Robert Mueller to know.

This was the old “We’re not worthy!” routine from Wayne’s World. People did not want to find out Mueller was human in any way.

Newspapers and cable framed coverage of the investigation as a fable of coming deliverance. “Mueller knows” was one cliché. Reading “bread crumbs” or “puzzle pieces” dropped from above also became a regular fixation, as reporters sought to “read between the lines” of court filings.

By early this year, “waiting for Mueller” assumed enormous significance. The coming report was hyped as a judgment day. It was an article of faith with pundits and reporters that the verdict would contain all the expected evidence, as a fulfillment of prophecy. 

The New York Times ran a multi-part audio series titled, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting (The Mueller Report).” The Atlantic meanwhile worried what the Trump opposition would do once Mueller finished his investigation. Would they be able to “grapple with a new world”?

Like the original Great Disappointment (Christ failing to come down to earth to dispense justice according to the Millerite prediction on October 22nd, 1844), the Mueller watch came to an abrupt cat-fart of an end.

Late on a March evening (coincidentally on the 22nd) the collusion narrative died, with news of the Mueller probe concluding without new indictments. This colossal bummer for Russiagate hopefuls forced poor Rachel Maddow to cut short her trout fishing vacation, and do a somber broadcast reassuring viewers that a concluded Mueller probe was “the start of something, not the end of something.”

There is a false narrative even about this sequence of events, as I have the misfortune to know personally. A common trope is that the death of the collusion narrative was a Trumpian falsehood, issued via hated Attorney General William Barr’s letter summarizing the Mueller report on March 24th.

As one of a handful of reporters who spoke about loony Russiagate coverage from the start, I began receiving emails or tweets on a daily or hourly basis from people accusing me of “believing Barr’s lies.” But like others who spoke out that day, I published my jeremiad about Russiagate being the next WMD on March 23rd, a day before Barr released his letter.

The end of the collusion/conspiracy narrative had nothing to do with Barr. It was officially over in the days before, as saddened media write-ups here, here, here, and here (“Russian collusion is a dead end,” conceded USA Today) attest.

The lack of charges was immediately spun by some as meaning nothing (Mueller found conspiracy but didn’t charge it because Manafort already had a prison sentence! Mueller found conspiracy but didn’t charge it because the evidence was classified! And so on). It all became a new story, about Barr lying about what those non-indictments meant.

On a more meta level, editorialists began plotting a rhetorical course that abandoned the search for conspiracy between Trump and Russia, and focused instead on obstruction of justice as the big reveal.

Legal analysts like Jeffrey Toobin were put back to work building the public case. We were reminded frequently that a charge of obstruction does not legally require an underlying offense. These arguments by themselves essentially admitted the previous two years of speculation about criminal Trump-Russia conspiracies involving blackmail, bribery, election fixing, espionage, even treason - all the theories about pee tapes and secret servers and five year cultivation plans and meetings with hackers in Prague and bribes from Rosneft — had been dead ends.

The precedent now would be impeachment of a sitting president for his response to a politically-charged investigation into crimes he didn’t commit, the same logic that rightly enraged Democrats in the Ken Starr days (articles of impeachment were filed against Bill Clinton, too, for obstruction, for coaching Monica Lewinsky and assistant Betty Currie). It wasn’t as good as a collusion case, but why not? Proponents pressed on, as if this had been their goal all along.

By the time Schiff and Nadler came up with their harebrained religious revival scheme, Russiagate had come full circle. Adherents were now back to making the same arguments editorialists were making in July and August of 2016: Donald Trump was simply too willing to be a partner to Putin. The crime was no longer any overt act of conspiracy, but in the mental state of being amenable to cooperation with the evil one.

This is how Vox reimagined “collusion” after the release of Mueller’s report:

What the report finds is not clear-cut evidence of a quid-pro-quo. Instead, what we see is a series of bungled and abortive attempts to create ties between the two sides…

Does that rise to the level of “collusion?” It’s a slippery term. But if “collusion” refers to a willingness to cooperate with Russian interference in the 2016 US election and actively taking steps to abet it, it seems to me that the Mueller report does in fact establish that it took place…

Schiff in his opening statement before Mueller’s testimony took this all a step further. He said Trump “knew a foreign power was intervening in our election and welcomed it,” a crime he described as “Disloyalty to our country.”

Noting that this offense “may not be criminal” (a fact Schiff hastened to blame on destruction of evidence and “the use of encrypted communications”), he went on to insist that, “disloyalty to country violates the very oath of citizenship,” and is therefore unconstitutional, and a “violation of law.” That this concept was originally dreamed up in the Red Scare era (McCarthy also accused members of Truman’s administration of disloyalty) seemed not to bother anyone.

Russiagate isn’t just about bad reporting. It was and is a dangerous political story about rallying the public behind authoritarian maneuvers in an effort to achieve a political outcome. Republicans who battered Mueller with questions weren’t wrong. Investigators in the Russia probe made extravagant use of informants abroad (in the less-regulated counterintelligence context), lied to the FISA court, leaked classified information for political purposes, opened the cookie jar of captured electronic communications on dubious pretexts, and generally blurred the lines between counterintelligence, criminal law enforcement, and private political research in ways that should and will frighten defense lawyers everywhere.

Proponents cheered the seizure of records from Trump’s lawyer Cohen, sending a message that attorney-client privilege is a voluntary worry if the defendant is obnoxious enough. The public likewise shrugged when prosecutors trashed Maria Butina as a prostitute, because Butina a) is Russian, and b) palled around with the NRA. This case has seen would-be liberals embracing guilt by association, guilt by nationality, guilt by accusation, entrapment, secret evidence, and other concepts that were considered an anathema to progressives as recently as the War on Terror period. In the name of preventing the “sowing of discord,” they’ve even embraced censorship.

Finally, in an effort to milk the Mueller report for maximum effect, Democrats – ostensibly the party of card-carrying ACLU members – are trying to uphold a vicious new legal concept, “not exonerated.” In a moment that provided a window into the authoritarian tendencies Mueller once expressed with more fluency, the Special Counsel declined under questioning by Ohio Republican Michael Turner to reject the idea that in our legal system, “there is not power or authority to exonerate.”

This was equivalent to no-commenting a question about whether people are innocent until proven guilty. In America, prosecutors don’t declare you exonerated, you are exonerated, until someone proves otherwise. Efforts to reverse this understanding are dangerous, Trump or no Trump. It’s appalling that Democrats are backing this idea.

All these excesses have been excused on the grounds that Trump must be stopped at all costs. But you don’t challenge someone for being racist and an enemy of immigrants, the poor, and the environment by turning the federal security apparatus into a Franz Kafka theme park. It’s fighting bad with worse.

NEXT: The New York Times is no longer the paper of record


* I’m obviously on the list too, but only because this awful story has been a paradigm-wrecking event in my professional life.

Image by DonkeyHotey

Earlier in Untitledgate:

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