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:

Also read:

Remember the billions of free coverage Donald Trump got last election? He's getting it again

MSNBC and others are already showing that in 2020, they’ll make money off Trump while pretending to advocate against him

(Click to play video.)


The oft-quoted figure was $2 billion, but it went up to $5 billion by the end of the 2016 election, depending upon the shrillness of the media outlet in question.

Those billions were how much “free media” Donald Trump supposedly received from ratings-hungry news outlets early in the last presidential election campaign.

Along with Russia, James Comey and Wikileaks, this phenomenon was pointed to regularly in election postmortems as a primary cause for Trump’s election. One of the people who complained the loudest was Hillary Clinton, in her astounding book-length denial exercise called What Happened. She wrote:

Their real problem is they can’t bear to face their own role in helping elect Trump, from providing him free airtime to giving my emails three times more coverage than all the issues affecting people’s lives combined.

Hillary left out the part where she, too got about $3.24 billion in free media, which is called “earned media” when we’re using it to describe politicians we like. Incidentally TV stations tend to give away “earned media” to, precisely, the politicians who can afford to pay for their own PR – frontrunners and incumbents especially.

The president’s ability to summon airtime at will (just bomb someone!) is one of the major electoral advantages of incumbency. The politicians who are really at the short end of the stick here aren’t the Clintons of the world, but the so-called “fringe” pols, the Dennis Kuciniches and Ron Pauls, the Andrew Yangs and Mike Gravels. Even Bernie Sanders got 23 times less TV coverage than Trump, a challenger whose intramural party revolt was a very similar news narrative to the Trump tale.

Still, getting the media to cover you is part of the challenge of running for office in modern America, and Trump was good at it. It’s not an optimal way to run a country. We’d likely be better off with a super-short election process that included a handful of publicly funded candidate forums.

But this is the system we have, and after 2016, news orgs pledged to stop milking it for cash. Word spread that we were out of the helping-Trump business. There would be no more broadcasts of empty podiums awaiting the appearance of the Orange One.

Neither, we were told, would there be any more chummy sessions where people like Mika and Joe slobbered on the Ratings God.

As we carried the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” banner, we would no longer give Trump free PR. In fact, Trump content would be wrapped in so much negative editorializing that video couldn’t redound to his benefit even by accident. He would no longer be permitted even argument or rhetoric, as cable crawls said things like TRUMP CALLS OBAMA FOUNDER OF ISIS (HE’S NOT).

The moralizing about changing our tune and being true to “history’s judgment” was clearly fake. This was just a way to allow the networks to cover Trump more, while conversely giving even less attention to non-Trump topics.

The big giveaway story this week involved an exchange on insults between Trump and Joe Biden. The TL:DR version is that Biden called Trump an “existential threat” to America, while Trump called Biden a “sleepy guy,” a “dummy,” and a “loser,” who was “slower” and “mentally weak,” unable to keep up with a real campaign schedule.

He, Trump, said he was anxious to run against Biden, because “I like running against mentally weak people.”

Everyone who went through the campaign last year knew what was up. This is a formula that Trump loves. He’s blasting Biden in tweets and appearances because campaigning is easier than governing.

Insult exchanges with bumbling, foot-in-mouth ex-Vice Presidents is a natural playing field for this politician. He’s better at it than everyone in politics, as he showed last time, when he devoured the likes of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton by luring them down into the deep waters of sophomoric, WWE-style taunting. 

If you’re on the level about not using these exchanges to make a quick buck, and you’re truly interested in abandoning BS to cover real news – the Midwest floods, a big telecom merger, Hong Kong riots, etc. – you’d just blow off this story.

It’s not even relevant as campaign news. We’re a year away from the general election, and acting like there are only two candidates left in the race benefits exactly two people, both of whom can afford to buy their own PR: Biden and Trump.

All the major papers and TV outlets still gave it significant play. The New York Times and the Washington Post both out it on the front page. The Times head read:

Trump and Biden Get Personal in Iowa Skirmish

An “Existential Threat” and a “Sleepy Guy”

The Post went with:

In Iowa, a Feud Gains Strength

TRUMP, BIDEN, PLAY OFF EACH OTHER

The cable stations went gaga. How do you justify jumping to this format again, after you took so much deserved abuse for riding it to huge profits the last time? Easy: pretend you’re not doing it, and blame what you are doing on Donald Trump.

Brian Williams on MSNBC led off his “11th Hour” newscast with the story. He began in amusing fashion:

And if you looked at cable news today, and all good citizens should…

Right. You didn’t just watch an Oil of Olay commercial, or an ad for the new Infiniti GX50 (they both sponsored the program). Watching cable TV is citizenship. He went on:

If you looked at cable news today, and all good citizens should, you

might think the general election is set and Donald Trump is straight up

running for re-election against the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

But that is certainly not the case.  Donald Trump sounds like he’s running against

Joe Biden, but there are a whole slew of Democrats, dozens of them, who beg

to differ. 

So it’s not our fault, or even Joe Biden’s fault, that we’re doing a story that sounds like a general election story at least 12 months early. It’s Trump’s fault.

Trump, says Williams, wants you to believe there aren’t “dozens” of other Democratic candidates in the field. So Trump’s the one who wants you to ignore the other Democratic candidates.

Williams then proceeds to ignore the other Democratic candidates.

He goes on to tell the story about the exchange of insults, and in doing so, shows about 1:06 of footage of Biden railing against Trump from three separate Iowa locations.

MSNBC as of last summer was charging about $13,550 for 30-second ads, so you can do the math. This is footage that’s probably worth about thirty grand.

Is it important, informative news? Meh. It’s Biden calling Trump an “existential threat” and complaining that “it’s the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and he’s tweeting about Bette Midler?”

We spent all of the summer of 2016 hearing Democrats blast Trump’s negatives, we’ve heard little else on MSNBC and CNN since. Is it news? It’s definitely boring. Also, again, Biden is running for office. If Andrew Yang needs to pay to call Trump names, so should the front-runner.

The network then flips to a series of clips of Trump whaling away at Joe. The network gives Trump about 1:11 of time to hammer Biden, to say things like:

He said my name so many times that people couldn’t stand it anymore… Sleepy guy…

Even if the people that he’s running against, they’re saying where is he?  What happened?  He makes his stance in Iowa, once every two weeks and then he mentions my name 74 times in one speech.  I don’t now. 

That reminds me of crooked Hillary.  She did the same thing.

Williams then interrupts, and, looking somber, says Trump later switched to the “hard stuff”:

I heard Biden, who’s a loser….

I have to tell you, he’s a different guy. He looks different than he used to.  He acts different than he used to. He’s even slower than he used to be.

I’d rather run against… Biden than anybody. I think he’s the weakest mentally. And I like running against people that are weak mentally. I think Joe is the weakest up here.

In case you missed the “hard stuff,” MSNBC even made sure to show the pictures of Trump with the words BIDEN and LOSER in the Chryon:

TRUMP CALLS BIDEN A “LOSER” BEFORE LEAVING FOR IOWA TRIP

If that isn’t bad enough, MSNBC then switched to a gross-looking under-shot of Biden’s ashen face as reporters in Iowa accosted him.

Again in case you missed anything, they put subtitles on screen so you could see exactly all the Trump-originated accusations being lobbed at Biden.

“The president raised questions about your age!” they shouted. “He raised questions about whether or not you have the stamina to run for president.”

Then came my personal favorite, the one where the unnamed reporter appeared to agree with Trump about Biden’s “lighter” schedule:

Reporter: There’s been a lot of questions about your schedule, and that it’s been a little lighter than some of the other candidates…

Biden (croaking, in hoarse voice and trademark weird smile): Look at him and look at me and answer the question.

Reporter: You answer the question! Will you please answer the question?

Biden: It’s self-evident.

This was classic Trump.

He did this over and over again in the 2015-2016 race, where he’d lob an outrageous insult to an opponent, get the press to corner that candidate and repeat the accusation on his behalf, and then cash in when the opponent inevitably validates Trump’s criticism with some idiotic attempt to play this game.

The famous example was Jeb Bush, whom Trump assailed as being soft on Mexico because of his Mexican wife, then taunted for needing his “mommy” after Jeb made a joint appearance on Good Morning America with Barbara Bush.

Soon after, in a debate exchange, Bush insisted he’d “won the lottery” when he was born and looked up at his mother, who was “the strongest woman I know.”

“She should be running,” Trump quipped.

Bush was compared to Michael Dukakis by pundits after that exchange, which is basically fatal in presidential campaign coverage (he was also called a “shrinking violet”).

This is a technique Trump learned from WWE. If the heel wrestler taunts the hero, and the hero doesn’t fight back well, the crowd will turn on the hero and start cheering the bad guy, every time. Trump steamrolled a series of opponents using this very tactic, and it was often the press that joined in the fun with him.

It was the same with this story, only the rationalizing got even worse.

Williams after this exchange there invited a panel of overpaid talking heads to discuss the meaningless insult trade: MSNBC reporter Garrett Haake, A.B. Stoddard of Real Clear Politics, and veteran campaign cliché-creator John Heilemann.

The hilarious part involved the intro with Haake, in which Williams first doubled down on blaming Trump for the exchange. What did he, Haake, think of the idea that we’re already in election season?

Haake explained that what we watched was not a pointless exchange of insults that probably favored Trump, but, actually, a planned and perhaps brilliant maneuver by the Biden campaign. Asked by Williams if audiences could be “forgiven” for thinking it’s already the general election, Haake responded:

Yes, Brian, that’s absolutely right. And that’s exactly the way the Biden campaign would like this to be. Look, Joe Biden would not be running for president against to Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. He really does see Donald Trump as an existential threat. 

And when you are the frontrunner in the position that he’s in both in the early states and nationally, the only thing you can really do is punch up.

Translation: I’m going to repeat Biden’s talking points verbatim as if they’re my own thoughts, and then I’m going to argue that we’re doing this to help Democrats.

He went on to brag about how skillfully Biden had manipulated the media, including his own channel:

And what you saw the Biden campaign do today was essentially set a trap for Donald Trump. They released the excerpts of his speech that the Vice President did not intend to give for another 12 hours. About 6:00 this morning, let all of us talk about it on the cable news all day long, and get it into Donald Trump’s head.

Haake here is bragging that Biden got “all of us” on cable to babble “all day long” about campaign talking points just by handing out the transcript of his speech 12 hours early. Ingenious! Brian, we’re such tools, we’ll blather on about anything, for free, if you give us a list of talking points in advance…

Haake concluded:

The President responded exactly as you might expect, coming after the Vice President and allowing this back and forth split screen image which lets Joe Biden stand then head and shoulders, at least for this one day, over 22 other candidates who would like to take his place and be the Democratic nominee. 

We’ve now moved to explaining that MSNBC isn’t ignoring the other 20-odd candidates out of principle, but simply because Joe Biden demonstrated such skill in manipulating the press that he got to stand “head and shoulders” above the field while Trump called him a slow, old, mentally weak loser with a light schedule.

And that, Brian, is why we showed that painful, ratings-generating footage!

Haake wrapped by saying Democratic voters just want someone who can “end the Donald Trump presidency,” and Biden might be the candidate who’ll get the chance to do that because:

OK, if Donald Trump is worried about this guy, then maybe there’s something to this. And that’s what we saw played out in Iowa today.

This is disingenuous. In my experience, when Trump vomits on a political opponent, it’s very likely he really thinks that’s going to work for him in the end. He did it to “Low Energy” Jeb Bush (check out Jimmy Kimmel loving the characterization), “Little” Marco Rubio, “pathological” “child molester” Ben Carson, “Lyin’” Ted Cruz, and a host of others.

When he’s at least a little nervous about the opponent, he lays off the nasty nicknames. Robert Mueller, for instance, only got “highly conflicted Bob Mueller.”

This is all a game. It’s not about politics, but money.

Trump’s brand of taunt-and-sneer campaigning, which is basically indistinguishable from pro wrestling, makes bank. The networks love it and once admitted to this.

Today they still love it, but they try to pretend otherwise, cloaking themselves in sanctimony and pretend-advocacy as they do. This isn’t politics. It’s low-end consumer business – mental cigarettes. Don’t fall for it.


Earlier: Welcome to ‘Behind the News’

Welcome to 'Behind the News'

Note to Substack readers…

First, about Untitledgate. I haven’t given up on it. It’s just been harder going than I expected, and in a format where I regularly have to release some kind of content to paying subscribers, I feel I can’t just ask everyone to keep waiting for the big reveal. So I’ve been experimenting with something new to do in the in-between times.

Years ago, when I first started covering campaigns, I developed a hobby. I would walk outside my hotel room in whatever city I was in, pick up the complimentary paper they left outside the door (often a USA Today), and then try to spot as much BS on the front page as I could in under a minute, using a red marker.

Especially when it came to campaign-related coverage, it was rarely hard to end up with a whole red-marked front page in less than a minute. The New York Times is the most amusing paper to use for this exercise.

I thought about doing something similar this campaign season, only I’d do it in video form, taking bits of TV coverage as well, showing readers where the hidden manipulations and tricks are. The idea would be to play off some of the themes of Hate Inc., but do it using current political coverage.

So in cooperation with WFMU, the very cool local radio station in Jersey City, we’re playing around with a Mystery Science Theater version of media crit, which we’re calling Behind The News. The plan is to spoof all the crawls, chryons, boxes and overlays to rip on modern news coverage – cable format on cable format crime.

Obviously we’re still working out the kinks in terms of what works and what doesn’t, how much extraneous stuff to cram in the screens (we’re trying to spoof that effect, not replicate), and learn how we can use all the graphic doo-dads in a way that’s more funny than annoying, i.e. self-consciously absurd. We also have to work through my steep learning curve as a newsreader. But if it works, we should be able to produce interesting content about how election coverage in particular works through the campaign season.

This first installment has an explainer video stuck into a larger essay, which will be the usual format. The subject is how cable stations (and newspapers) are monetizing the Trump phenomenon in exactly the same way they did last election, even as they pretend to be “calling out” Trump. They’re not – it’s just business as usual, but they do work hard to disguise what they’re up to.

In any case, please bear with me as we work to make this all look smoother in subsequent installments.

More to come soon.

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