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.

* 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


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:


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.

Exposé in "The Hill" challenges Mueller, media

Claim that would-be key Russiagate figure Konstantin Kilimnik is a longtime American informant might be a game-changing story – in a country with a real press corps

John Solomon of The Hill just came out with what could be a narrative-changing story. If news organizations that heavily covered Russiagate don’t at least check out this report – confirm it or refute it – few explanations other than bias will make sense.   

In “Key figure that Mueller report linked to Russia was a State Department intel source,” Solomon asserts that Konstantin Kilimnik, the mysterious Ukrainian cohort of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, has been a “sensitive” source for the U.S. State department dating back to at least 2013, including “while he was still working for Manafort.” 

Solomon describes Kilimnik meeting “several times a week” with the chief political officer of the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. Kilimnik “relayed messages back to Ukraine’s leaders and delivered written reports to U.S. officials via emails that stretched on for thousands of words,” according to memos Solomon reviewed. 

Solomon’s report, which raises significant questions about an episode frequently described as the “heart” of the Mueller investigation (and which was the subject of thousands of news stories), came out on June 6th. As of June 8th, here’s the list of major news organizations that have followed up on his report:

That’s it. Nobody else has touched it. 

Solomon is a controversial figure, especially to Democratic audiences. The Columbia Journalism Review has hounded him in the past for what it called “suspect” work, especially for pushing “less than meets the eye” stories that turned into right-wing talking points. The Washington Post has done stories citing Hill staffers who’ve complained that a trail of “Solomon investigations” that veered “rightward” was also misleading and lacking “context.” The Post likewise quoted staffers who complained that Solomon was making too much of texts between Lisa Page and Peter Strzok of the FBI.

On the Russiagate story, however, Solomon clearly has sources, as he’s repeatedly broken news about things that other reporters have heard about, but didn’t have in full. He reported about former British spy and FBI informant Christopher Steele speaking to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavelec before the 2016 election, among other things admitting he’d been speaking to the media.

Solomon also reported that Kavelec’s notes about Steele had been passed to the FBI, eight days before the FBI described Steele as credible in a FISA warrant application.

It would be one thing if other outlets were rebutting his claims about Kilimnik, as people have with some of this other stories. But this report has attracted zero response from non-conservative media, despite the fact that Kilimnik has long been one of the most talked-about figures in the whole Russiagate drama.

This story matters for a few reasons. If Kilimnik was that regular and important a U.S. government source, it would deal a blow to the credibility of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

 Kilimnik’s relationship with Manafort was among the most damaging to Donald Trump in the Mueller report. Here was Trump’s campaign manager commiserating with a man Mueller said was “assessed” to have “ties to Russian intelligence.” 

In one of the most lurid sections of the Mueller report, Manafort is described writing to Kilimnik after being named Trump’s campaign manager to ask if “our friends” had seen media coverage about his new role. 

“Absolutely. Every article,” said Kilimnik. To this, Manafort replied: “How do we use to get whole. Has Ovd operation seen?” referring to Deripaska.  

The implication was clear: Manafort was offering to use his position within the Trump campaign to “get whole” with the scary metals baron, Deripaska. Manafort believed his role on the campaign could help “confirm” Deripaska would drop a lawsuit he had filed against Manafort. 

When Manafort later sent “internal polling data” to Kilimnik with the idea that it was being shared with Ukrainian oligarchs and Deripaska, this seemed like very damaging news indeed: high-ranking Trump official gives inside info to someone with “ties” to Russian intelligence.

Mueller didn’t just describe Kilimnik as having ties to Russian intelligence. He said that while working in Moscow between 1998 and 2005 for the International Republican Institute– that’s an American think-tank connected to the Republican Party, its sister organization being the National Democratic Institute – IRI officials told the FBI he’d been fired because his “links to Russian intelligence were too strong.” 

In other words, Mueller not only made a current assessment about Kilimnik, he made a show of retracing Kilimnik’s career steps in a series of bullet points, from his birth in the Dnieprpetrovsk region in 1970 to his travel to the U.S. in 1997, to his effort in 2014 to do PR work defending Russia’s move into Crimea. 

Mueller left out a bit, according to Solomon, who says he “reviewed” FBI and State Department memos about Kilimnik’s status as an informant. He even went so far as to name the U.S. embassy officials in Ukraine who dealt with Kilimnik:

Alan Purcell, the chief political officer at the Kiev embassy from 2014 to 2017, told FBI agents that State officials, including senior embassy officials Alexander Kasanof and Eric Schultz, deemed Kilimnik to be such a valuable asset that they kept his name out of cables for fear he would be compromised by leaks to WikiLeaks.

“Purcell described what he considered an unusual level of discretion that was taken with handling Kilimnik,” states one FBI interview report that I reviewed. “Normally the head of the political section would not handle sources, but Kasanof informed Purcell that KILIMNIK was a sensitive source.”

This relationship was described in “hundreds of pages of government documents” that Solomon reports Mueller “possessed since 2018.” The FBI, he added, knew all about Kilimnik’s status as a State Department informant before the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation. 

This is one of a growing number of examples of people whose status as documented U.S. informants goes unmentioned in the Mueller report, where they are instead described under the general heading, “Russian government links to, and contact with, the Trump campaign.”

One of the first such “Russian-government connected individuals” is Felix Sater, described in Mueller’s report as a “New York based real estate advisor” who contacted Cohen with a “new inquiry about building a Trump Tower project in Moscow.”

It’s Sater who initiates the inquiry and Sater who wrote the most oft-quoted emails to Cohen, like “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA” and “I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in.” Sater in the report encourages Cohen to keep the project alive and keeps promising he can deliver meetings with the likes of Putin and aide Dmitry Peskov.

But nowhere in the report is it disclosed that Sater, as reported by the Intercepthas been a registered FBI informant since 1998, when after racketeering and assault cases he signed a cooperation agreement. The document was signed on the government side by Mueller’s future chief investigator, Andrew Weissman, another detail no one seems to find odd.

Similarly there is a section in the report involving a character named Henry Oknyansky (a.k.a. Henry Greenberg). Oknyansky-Greenberg (he has other aliases) is a Miami-based hustler who approached former Trump aide Michael Caputo in May of 2016, ostensibly offering “derogatory information” on Hillary Clinton. Mueller lists the Greenberg case under a header about “potential Russian interest in Russian hacked materials.” 

He leaves out the part where any idiot with a PACER account can run a search on Greenberg and find the series of court documents in which the oft-arrested figure claims, “I cooperated with the FBI for 17 years, often put my life in danger.” 

Of course, anyone bold enough might claim to be an FBI informant in an effort to stave off deportation. But in this case, in an effort to prove to he was in fact a government tipster, Greenberg submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the FBI about himself – and actually got the documentation!

California court records show Oknyansky/Greenberg received a series of “significant public benefit” parole visas of varying lengths from the U.S. government between 2008 and 2012. The documents even list the name and phone number of his FBI case officer. 

Mueller’s failure to identify the U.S. government links to either Greenberg or Sater was suspicious (there are other head-scratching omissions as well), but failing to do so in the case of Kilimnik would be mind-boggling. Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik were described by Judge Amy Berman Jackson as the “undisputed core of the Office of Special Counsel’s investigation.” 

Much was made of the fact that Kilimnik visited the Trump Tower in August of 2016 to present a plan for resolving the Russian-Ukrainian conflict:

Kilimnik requested the meeting to deliver in person a peace plan for Ukraine that Manafort acknowledged to the Special Counsel’s Office was a ‘backdoor’ way for Russia to control part of eastern Ukraine; both men believed the plan would require Trump assent to succeed.

But Solomon’s report indicates Kilimnik traveled to the U.S. twice in 2016 to meet with State officials, and delivered the same “peace plan” to Obama administration officials. Kilimnik appeared to have discussed the plan in Washington with former embassy official Alexander Kasanof – who’d since been promoted to a senior State position – at a dinner on May 5, 2016.

Not that anyone much cares, but Kilimnik has angrily denied the characterization of him as a spy. As Solomon writes:

Officials for the State Department, the FBI, the Justice Department and Mueller’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Kilimnik did not respond to an email seeking comment but, in an email last month to The Washington Post, he slammed the Mueller report’s “made-up narrative” about him. “I have no ties to Russian or, for that matter, any intelligence operation,” he wrote.

The Manafort-Kilimnik tale is a fundamentally different news story if Kilimnik is more of an American asset than a Russian one. 

If Kilimnik was giving regular reports to the State Department through 2016, if his peace plan was not a diabolical Trump-Manafort backdoor effort to carve up Ukraine, if Kilimnik was someone who could be “flabbergasted at the Russian invasion of Crimea,” as Solomon says the FBI concluded, then this entire part of the Russiagate story has been farce. 

It would become a more ambiguous story that was made to look diabolical through inference and omission. Though it might not absolve Paul Manafort of lying or thinking he was doing something wrong, it could change the complexion of the actual narrative, how we should understand the story.

“Trump campaign manager gives polling data to longtime U.S. government informant” doesn’t have the same punch as “Manafort Suggests He Gave Suspected Russian Spy 2016 Polling Data,” as the oft-hyperventilating Daily Beast put it. 

The Times did cover some of this ground a while ago, in a story that to me lends credence to the idea that the Hill and the Times were looking at the same Kilimnik documents. 

The Times, which has become a dependable venue for the gentle spinning of soon-to-be-released dispositive information about the collusion theory, wrote a long feature on Kilimnik in February: “Russian Spy or Hustling Political Operative? The Enigmatic Figure at the Heart of Mueller’s Inquiry.”

That piece, based on “dozens of interviews, court filings and other documents,” described Kilimnik as an “operator who moved easily between Russian, Ukrainian and American patrons, playing one off the other while leaving a jumble of conflicting suspicions in his wake.”

The Times added: 

To American diplomats in Washington and Kiev, [Kilimnik] has been a well-known character for nearly a decade, developing a reputation as a broker of valuable information…

The paper noted that Kilimnik traveled “freely” to the U.S. and appeared to reference the dinner with Kasanof, noting Kilimnik “in May 2016 met senior State Department officials for drinks at the Off the Record bar.” 

Only in the last two paragraphs did they get to the point, quoting Caputo:

To buttress this case, Mr. Manafort’s lawyers requested and received records from the government showing that Mr. Kilimnik communicated with officials at the American Embassy in Kiev.

“If he was a Russian intelligence asset, then the State Department officials who met with him over the years should be under investigation,” Mr. Caputo said.

No shit! It’s one thing if Kilimnik was just another hustler who moved back and forth between Western and Russian orbits, trading on connections on both sides. There were countless such figures in Moscow, especially dating back to the nineties, when Kilimnik began working for the IRI. 

But it’s a different matter if Kilimnik was meeting multiple times a week with American embassy officials and providing thousands of words of intel on a regular basis. There’s no scenario where Kilimnik is actually a Russian spy and that kind of record doesn’t reflect badly on whoever was regularly downloading and sharing his intelligence on the American side.  

There are two big possibilities: either Solomon’s report is wrong somehow, and the nature of Kilimnik’s relationship with the United States government has been misrepresented, or he’s right and this tale at the “heart” of the Mueller probe has been over-spun in an Everest of misleading news reports. 

Either way, it has to be looked into. It appears, though, that no one among the usual suspects is interested, just as the press declined to descend upon Italy in search of the ostensible Patient Zero of Russiagate, Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud (who was said to be shacked up in a Rome apartment for seven months after the Russiagate insanity broke before going to ground). 

MSNBC burned up countless hours obsessing over the Manafort-Kilimnik relationship. You can find the tale discussed ad nauseum here, here, here, here, and in many other places, with Kilimnik routinely described on air as a “Russian asset” with “ties to Russian intelligence,” who even bragged that he learned his English from Russian spies. 

CNN has likewise done a gazillion reports on the guy: see here, here, here, here, and here. Some reports said Manafort’s conduct “hints” at collusion, while Chris Cilizza said his meetings with a “Russian-linked operative” were a “very big deal.” Bloviator-in-chief Jake Tapper wondered if this story was “Game, Set, Match” for the collusion case. Anytime a Democrat spoke about how “stunning” and “damning” was the news that Manafort gave Kilimnik poll numbers, reporters repeated those assertions in a snap. 

I could go up and down the line with the Times,the Washington Postand other print outlets. Every major news organization that covered Russiagate has covered the hell out of this part of the story. But the instant there’s a suggestion there’s another angle: crickets.

Russiagate is fast becoming a post-journalistic news phenomenon. We live in an information landscape so bifurcated, media companies don’t cover news, because they can stick with narratives. Kilimnik being a regular State Department informant crosses the MSNBC-approved line that he’s a Russian cutout who tried to leverage Donald Trump’s campaign manager. So it literally has no news value to many companies, even if it’s clearly a newsworthy item according to traditional measure. 

Incidentally, Solomon’s report being true wouldn’t necessarily exonerate either Kilimnik or Manafort. It may just mean a complication of the picture, along with uncomfortable questions for Robert Muller and embassy officials who dealt with Kilimnik. That’s what’s so maddening. We’ve gotten to the point where news editors and producers are more like film continuity editors — worried about maintaining literary consistency in coverage — than addressing newsworthy developments that might move us into gray areas. 

Our press sucks. There are third-world dictatorships where newspapers try harder than they do here. We used to at least pretend to cover the bases. Now, we’re a joke. 

Image by beresin

Earlier in Untitledgate:

Also read:

The intelligence community needs a house-cleaning

John Brennan and the CIA claim lives will be endangered if their work is declassified. That excuse only works so many times

If I told you, Id have to kill you.”

It’s been a tired pop-cliché meme for ages. Way back in 2000, when Adam Garcia tried to lay it on Piper Perabo in Coyote Ugly, she groaned, “That’s original.”

It drew eye rolls in Top Gun in 1986. Going back at least that far, we’ve known it’s usually bullshit when someone says they’re keeping a tantalizing secret from you for your own good.  

Former CIA director John Brennan is pulling this stunt now, and the press is again taking him seriously, despite his proven unreliability.

Brennan has an elaborate history of lying to the public, most infamously about the CIA monitoring computers Senate staff were using to prepare a report on torture. When asked if it were true the CIA spied on congress as it was doing oversight of that agency, Brennan all but covered his heart. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he told Andrea Mitchell in a panel discussion, shaking his head. “We wouldn’t do that!”

Brennan has always had stones. In the Senate computer case, he didn’t limit himself to making staunch verbal denials. His CIA also later produced a report clearing itself of said “potential unauthorized access” to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Brennan also once said there had not been a “single collateral death” in the drone assassination program; claimed (inaccurately, it seems) that Osama bin Laden used his wife as a human shield in his encounter with Navy Seals; and provided inaccurate information to congress about the efficacy of CIA enhanced interrogation programs.

He has also been questioned at least twice in leak investigations. One involved a story from 2012. That year, a week or so before the May 2 anniversary of bin Laden’s death, White House spokesman Jay Carney said:

We have no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden's death.

Why the administration made this pointless claim is not clear. On May 8th, the AP came out with a blockbuster story refuting it. The report said the U.S. had just thwarted a terror attack timed to the bin Laden anniversary, a second version of the so-called “underwear plot.”

To spin that discrepancy, Brennan briefed a group of talking heads to blab on TV. Former Clinton counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke was one of many reportedly told by Brennan the U.S. was never in danger, because it had “inside control” of the situation.

Clarke ended up saying on TV:

The U.S. government is saying it never came close because they had insider information, insider control, which implies that they had somebody on the inside who wasn’t going to let it happen.

This led to a spate of articles suggesting that the United States had an uber-valuable human source inside al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Reuters said British officials played a role in the operation and were “deeply distressed” by the leaks.

That tale, of a valuable human source being revealed to the media for purely political reasons, resulting in objections by foreign partners about our indiscretion, should sound familiar in recent weeks.   

Brennan went on MSNBC last Friday to tell Chris Hayes that any effort to declassify information about the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation would place valuable sources at risk and imperil our precious bodily fluids:

The concern is that very, very precious source and methods of the United States intelligence community as well as our partners and allies abroad — those who share this sensitive information with us.

Brennan’s warning echoed other current and former intel officials.

Former acting CIA chief Michael Morell said the plan was “potentially dangerous,” saying only the Director of National Intelligence was qualified to judge damage to “sources and methods.” Politico added this on-script warning (emphasis mine):

“There’s nothing CIA or NSA, for example, guards more jealously than sources and methods,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year intelligence veteran who served as the chief of staff to CIA Director Michael Hayden. “It is not hyperbole to say that lives are at stake.”

Back on MSNBC, Hayes offered a dutiful intro to the interview with his fellow MSNBC (reporters no longer flinch at sharing airtime or column space with intelligence officials, now normal presences in the media landscape). In it, he described the move by Trump to declassify investigatory materials as “anti deep-state propaganda efforts.”

Trying to declassify this information was, Hayes said, a “a huge deal in the world of intelligence agencies.” He insisted the only reason Trump is giving Bill Barr permission to rummage around in the CIA’s treasure trove of secrets was “basically to give Sean Hannity material for his television show.”

This may sound counter-intuitive to blue-state audiences, but the fact that an inquiry might end up being politically beneficial to Donald Trump doesn’t automatically make it illegitimate, particularly when the investigatory targets include the intelligence agencies.  

In the same way, handing over “underlying evidence” from the Mueller probe to congress wouldn’t be illegitimate just because Democrats would immediately put it on AC360 or Last Word. Cui bono isn’t part of the newsworthiness equation.

I’m in favor of any Russiagate-related information coming out, or at least being disclosed to congress. That includes any redacted parts of the Mueller probe, along with underlying investigative materials.

But transparency has to cut all ways for this three-year national fiasco to be resolved in any way that makes sense. We need all the information about the origins of the investigation as well, and it’s simply not true that opening that vault would mean a “plot to dirty up the intelligence community” that must “compromise agents.”

There’s a story buried in Russiagate that seems not even really to be about Trump. It involves routine over-aggressive use of War on Terror-era investigatory tools, especially the reliance upon counterintelligence infrastructure to conduct domestic investigations.

Russiagate seems to have turned into an Our Man in Havana style absurdist drama, where intelligence officials chasing a real tale of real Russian cyber-incursion went barreling down multiple blind alleys, superimposing complex espionage plots on a Trump campaign that was actually more like a random, hormone-fueled publicity stunt than a Manchurian Candidate story.

Confirmation bias was rampant and got worse when Trump actually won, in defiance of any expectation (at least, any expectation of DC-bound CIA officials out of touch with the fact that much of America would vote for Ron Jeremy, or Hologram Saddam Hussein, over Hillary Clinton).

Determined to root out the plot, intelligence officials did what they apparently do too often, i.e. abuse the awesome surveillance tools we’ve allowed them to enjoy in an almost completely supervision-free environment. The bureaucratic battle over misuse of these tools pre-dates Russiagate.

Add this to graphic warnings in recent years that security agencies regularly ignore legal constraints – like senior CIA officials admitting to reading congressional emails pertaining to intelligence agency whistleblowers – and there’s a larger story about the growing impunity of the intelligence community, especially as concerns its use of new surveillance procedures. This issue predates Trump and there have been complaints from members of both parties over the years.

In the Trump era this has all been recast as a desperate partisan battle, where worry over improper spying is just a pretext concern for Republicans, who are just out to score political points on Fox. That may in fact be the motivation of people like Trump and Barr. But it doesn’t mean the investigations into Trump-Russia won’t find real systemic problems.

It’s against this backdrop that the latest cries about concern for “sources and methods” and “lives” must be understood.

Since the Russiagate probe began, we’ve repeatedly been told disclosures about the origins of the investigation would imperil national security. These statements have often proven to be not just false, but ridiculous provocations.

CIA director Gina Haspel crowed to the Washington Post a year ago that disclosing the name of informant Stefan Halper “could risk lives.” It turned out Halper had been outed as a spook in the pages of the New York Times back in 1983, and openly traded on his intelligence past as a professor in England. Where were lives at risk, in the Cambridge University Botanical Garden?

We also saw reports that revealing the name of former British spy Christopher Steele would imperil his life. When the Wall Street Journal outed him in January of 2017, Steele responded by telling British media that he was “terrified for his safety.” He added he was going into hiding because he feared a “potentially dangerous backlash against him from Moscow.”

We later found out Steele had more media contacts than the Kardashian family, meeting with (at minimum) the Times, Post, Yahoo!, The New Yorker, CNN and Mother Jones in the space of about seven weeks in September-October 2016.

In the years since his report became public, Steele fought through his terror to keep commiserating with the media. He invited a sprawling, laudatory 2018 profile in The New Yorker that described him answering “one of his two phones” in Farnham, a Surrey town with a “beautiful Georgian high street,” where he and his four children live on “nearly an acre of land.”

He’s given depositions, negotiated to testify before congress, and been a primary source in several bestselling books. Thanks to such elaborate precautions, he’s managed somehow to avoid assassination since 2016.

The same theatrical warnings about blowing “sources and methods” came in response to early questions about the FISA warrants used in the Trump-Russia probe.

When Trump ordered the declassification of parts of the FISA warrant on former aide Carter Page in 2017, the reaction was exactly the same as the one we’re hearing now, in many cases from the same people.

David Kris, former head of the national security division of the Justice Department said the release of the FISAs was “off the charts” and “unprecedented” because said FISAs had “already undergone declassification review.”

Former federal prosecutor Joyce Vance said the order about the FISAs “compromises national security.” Former FBI agent Frank Montoya said “the FISA process is secret for a reason: to protect sources and methods.”

The release of the Page warrant turned out to not to compromise anything but the reputation of the FBI and other agencies. The major revelation was the FBI had indeed used Steele, a “compensated” FBI informant as well as a private oppo researcher, as a source despite having  “suspended its relationship” with him in October 2016, ostensibly over failure to disclose media contacts.

House Intel committee ranking member Adam Schiff knew this information when he conducted his “bombshell” hearing” on March 20, 2017. That was the one in which he and other members questioned not-yet-fired FBI chief James Comey and Rogers, and read out information from the Steele report as if it were factual, not giving any hint that there might be issues with it.

Schiff was gung-ho to declassify “as much as possible about Russia hacking our elections” back in the summer of 2016, but now describes attempts to declassify information about the reasons for the probe as an attempt to “weaponize law enforcement.”

The hemming and hawing about “sources and methods” is really a pre-emptive ass-covering campaign. A bunch of these people are about to be highlighted in the upcoming review by Justice IG Michael Horowitz, as well as the larger probe led by former Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham.

This is why we’ve seen stories that essentially show James Comey and Brennan pointing fingers and blaming the other for using the Steele material. Former intelligence chiefs selling each other out is hilarious and predictable, and further reason not to take them seriously when they ask to be shielded from oversight on national security grounds.

This is especially true since officials had no issue telling reporters all sorts of fascinating things about our intelligence capabilities when it suited their PR purposes.

Take a June, 2017 Washington Post exclusive, in which it was revealed the CIA delivered a “bombshell” report to Barack Obama in August of 2016. The CIA reportedly told Obama that Vladimir Putin not only directed an election interference campaign, but did so specifically with the intention to “help elect… Donald Trump.”

That Post piece began with a literary scene-setter:

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides….

The material, the Post said, was “so sensitive that CIA Director John O. Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad.” They added: “The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read.”

The Post went on to explain this information had been withheld in an October 7th, 2016 public statement issued by the Obama government. According to the Post’s June 23 expose (emphasis mine):

Early drafts accused Putin by name, but the reference was removed out of concern that it might endanger intelligence sources and methods.

In the kind of LeCarre-esque mythical-toned newspaper treatment secret service chiefs tend to approve of, “John O. Brennan” is shown here so concerned about protecting his access to Putin that he asked for the envelope with his intel to be returned immediately (we’re in Burn After Reading spy-cliché territory now).

Then, to provide additional protection, it was decided even a reference to Putin’s personal involvement must be removed from a public statement by the government in October of 2016, lest those clever Russians figure out they had a leak.

Yet eight months later, the Post suddenly had a parade of officials not just blabbing about the secret Kremlin information, but sharing the whole backstory of how this magical intel came to be used and delivered to the president.

The Post article added, in a passage one can imagine Brennan penning himself: “The intelligence on Putin was extraordinary on multiple levels, including as a feat of espionage.”

In the space of a year, the CIA went from shielding prize intel with all but four people in the White House, to telling the entire world about it in the Washington Post. By mid-2017, “officials” were even throwing in additional super-sensitive info to Post reporters as a bonus, like a free set of radials (“The Washington Post is withholding some details at the request of the U.S. government,” was the paper’s solemn boast).

Now that Trump has announced he’s giving the hated Barr wide latitude to declassify intelligence community information about the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, suddenly more tales of this top-secret source are appearing.

The New York Times ran a piece called “Potential Clash Over Secrets Looms Between Justice Department and CIA,” which all but announced in neon signage, WE HAVE A HUMAN SOURCE RIGHT NEXT TO PUTIN!

Citing “some officials,” the paper wrote, “The most prominent of the C.I.A.’s sources of intelligence on Russia’s election interference was a person close to Mr. Putin,” adding this “person” was “long nurtured by the C.I.A.” and “rose to a position that enabled the informant to provide key information.”

Then it added this paragraph:

John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director under Mr. Obama, would bring reports from the source directly to the White House, keeping them out of the president’s daily intelligence briefing for fear that the briefing document was too widely disseminated, according to the officials. Instead, he would place them in an envelope for Mr. Obama and a tiny circle of aides to read.

Apparently that novelistic Post lede about Brennan’s sizzling-hot intel being sent “by courier” with instructions that it be “returned immediately” was, in fact, a novel, i.e. fiction. That is, unless Brennan himself was the courier and he was immediately returning the prized information to himself.

Alternatively, this new Times story could be wrong. Either way, the story is preposterous. If this source exists, what possible purpose could be served in telling the New York Times so many details about this “person”? Who complains about a threat to “sources and methods” by revealing “sources and methods”?

The intelligence community – after two solid decades of PR disasters, from 9/11 to Iraq to Abu Ghriab to Gitmo – has rebounded in the public’s eye since 2016, cleverly re-packaging itself as serving on the front lines of the anti-Trump resistance.

It’s even managed to turn the invention of the term “deep state” to its advantage, having media pals use it to make any accusation of investigatory overreach, leaking, and/or meddling in domestic politics sound like Trumpian conspiracy theory.

But these people are not saviors of democracy. They’re the same scoundrels we rightfully learned to despise in the Bush and Obama years for lying about everything from torture to rendition to drone assassination to warrantless surveillance.

They haven’t suffered a public ass-whipping since the Church-Pike hearings in the seventies (which also revealed illegal domestic surveillance), and appear to have grown overconfident since, genuinely believing they don’t owe congress or the White House, much less the public, any explanations for their behavior. In the Trump years, they’ve gone beyond becoming accustomed to reverential treatment from reporters. They now also expect upon retirement to be handsomely compensated to promote their self-serving bullshit as news, with their own platforms as network contributors.

Russiagate has always been two stories. One is about foreign cyber-incursion. The other is a shaggy dog tale about half-smart intelligence goons who spent years whispering to reporters about their heroic efforts to stop a conspiracy that apparently was never there.

This overheated story did tremendous political damage, undermining confidence around the world in a range of American institutions, from the press to law enforcement. Just as the Mueller probe was necessary, we need to get to the bottom of how that second thing happened, and protecting “sources and methods” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse not to anymore. You can only cry wolf so many times.

NEXT: Exposé in The Hill challenges Mueller, media

Image by Gage Skidmor

Earlier in Untitledgate:

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