The ‘Truther’ Temptation: The ‘Russiagate’ Skeptics & the Mueller Report – Part 1
By Will Banyan (Copyright © 21 February 2020)
TRUMP: Look, Putin…… from everything I see, has no respect for this person.
CLINTON: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.
TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.
CLINTON: And it’s pretty clear…
TRUMP: You’re the puppet!
Donald J. Trump & Hillary Clinton,
Third Presidential Debate, October 19, 2016
“…I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected.”
President Donald J. Trump tweet, 30 May 2019
As anticipated, the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election earlier last year elicited an abundance of earnest commentary from various parties. For President Donald Trump and his supporters the release of the redacted version of the report on 18 April 2019, which had been preceded a few weeks earlier by a carefully crafted letter by Attorney General William Barr summarising its main findings (March 24, 2019), this was a moment to savour. “No Collusion, No Obstruction!”, Trump tweeted; adding in a subsequent posting that Mueller had found “there was NO COLLUSION WITH RUSSIA. The Russia Hoax is dead!”
“The left’s favorite conspiracy theory is now dead, it is buried,” announced Fox News presenter and Trump confidante,1 Sean Hannity, “There was no collusion, no conspiracy, no obstruction, nothing.” Pro-Trump intellectual gadfly Victor Davis Hanson, writing on the American Greatness website, took issue with the “Mueller fiasco” for confirming what was “self-evident from the outset of this ill-starred inquest: Donald Trump did not ‘collude’ with the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton…” The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway congratulated herself for having successfully “resist[ed] the overwhelming pressure to join the conspiracy theorists…” Lee Smith over on The Tablet (Mar. 27, 2019), celebrated that the “entire collusion theory” had now been “publicly and definitely proclaimed to be a hoax” by Mueller, the very individual the “elite pundit class” had placed their “hopes of redemption.” Celebrating the downfall of the “Trump-Russia collusion fairy tale”, pro-Trump commentator, Julie Kelly, admonished “Citizen Collusion Truthers” and warned that: “History will not be kind to the Trump-Russia collusion truthers in Congress, the expert class, Hollywood, and the media” (American Greatness, Apr. 04, 2019).
Mueller’s report, wrote noted leftist skeptic Glenn Greenwald had “obliterated…in an undeniable and definitive manner” the “conspiracy theory that has dominated U.S. political discourse for almost three years.” According to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, Mueller’s report makes it “crystal clear” that “[t]here was no Trump-Russia conspiracy….” Mueller’s findings, mused another progressive skeptic, Aaron Maté, “should finally put to rest the ‘collusion’ theory that has consumed the mainstream media and the political class for more than two years” (The Nation, Mar. 26, 2019). Indeed, noted Maté in a follow-up piece, Mueller’s report not only refuted the “sinister collusion plot”, but “presents what amounts to an extended indictment of the conspiracy theory itself” (The Nation, Apr. 26, 2019). “[T]hose advancing the conspiracy theory that the Kremlin has infiltrated the highest levels of the US government were wrong, and those of us voicing skepticism of this were right,” declared self-styled Australian “rogue journalist” Caitlin Johnstone.
This victory chorus was accompanied by harsh commentary predicting that proponents of the Russia-Trump collusion theory would, like all conspiracists faced with information that debunked their claims, inevitably invent reasons to reject Mueller’s findings. Conspiracy theory researcher and Qanon-watcher Travis View, for example, warned in the Washington Post (Mar. 26, 2019), that people who held “unrealistic expectations” of the Mueller’s investigation “will dig deep into conspiracy theorizing rather than adjust to the new facts.” He claimed to have already detected a “QAnon-like rejection of reality” amongst some “Russia-gate” pundits. Brian Feldman at New York Magazine, (Mar. 28, 2019) similarly noted that Barr’s letter had “[n]ot been great” for the credibility of the “Russiagate gang.” Feldman portrayed them as grifters who built online brands based on “wild speculation and invented facts” who would, nevertheless, find new ways to continue to theorize:
The Mueller diviners who have seen their predictions and promises go up in flames are now pivoting from knowing everything to pointing out everything we don’t know. We don’t know what’s in sealed indictments, we don’t know what’s in the actual report, we don’t know what other investigations into Trump are uncovering. After making grand promises and failing to sit and wait, the #resistance tweeters would like you to sit and wait, listening to them craft ever more fantastical meta-realities…
The collusion skeptics and Trump sympathizers were also quick to deride the “Russiagate truthers” as grimly hanging onto their now discredited theories, as they desperately tried to ignore or explain away the inconvenient facts uncovered by Mueller. These “Collusion Truthers” needed to be treated with “scorn and ridicule”, tweeted a gloating Donald Trump Jr. Amber Athey at the Daily Caller (Mar. 30, 2019) claimed that “Democrats and the establishment media” were already “floating conspiracy theories” about Mueller’s investigation “in order to discredit his finding of no collusion.” National Review columnist Deroy Murdock lambasted “Democratic flat-Earthers” for their refusal to accept the findings of the Special Counsel, and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees “that ‘Trump-Russia collusion’ is a hoax” (National Review, Mar. 29, 2019). On twitter, a magnanimous Glenn Greenwald admitted to feeling “pity” for those people who “still cling to the hope that they were right all along about Trump/Russia conspiracy theory…” After reading Barr’s letter, “Bernhard” of the Moon of Alabama blog confidently concluded:
The case is closed. Neither was there a Trump campaign ‘collusion’ with anything Russia nor was there obstruction by the Trump administration.
Unfortunately Russiagaters will not give up on their conspiracy theories anytime soon.
Such analysis, in the face of Barr’s brief letter summarising the main conclusions of Mueller’s report and the subsequent release of the “lightly” redacted version of that document, which appears to refute the “collusion” accusation at the centre of the “Russia-gate” narrative, seems compelling. But there are good reasons to dispute this narrative of the fact-averse “Collusion Truthers” supposedly rejecting Mueller’s findings for more personally and politically comforting conspiracy theories. On the contrary, the worst outbreak of “Trutherism” has been amongst the “Russia-gate” skeptics who have clung to their “Deep State coup” theories even though Mueller’s findings did little to directly support their claims.
The evidence for this is fourfold: first, in their uncritical embrace of Barr’s highly misleading letter which sought to frame the narrative about Mueller’s findings as unequivocally exonerating Trump; second, following the release of the Special Counsel’s report, in their questioning and rejection of many of Mueller’s more nuanced and troubling findings about the extent of Russian interference and interactions with the Trump campaign; third, their strong support for US Attorney John Durham’s inquiry into the origins of the FBI’s investigation in the clear expectation it would confirm the “Deep State Coup” theory; and finally, in the continuing invocation of the “Deep State coup” conspiracy theory to explain why Trump was (albeit unsuccessfully) impeached over the Ukraine scandal.
The Secret Team
The term “conspiracy theory”, though seemingly neutral, has long served as a term of derision.2 As a writer for the Pacific Standard once observed, “the term suggests a certain level of looniness, conjuring images of paranoid people struggling to find sinister patterns in random events.”3 Certainly, when many media commentators and academics describe something as a “conspiracy theory” it is in reference to types of analysis, specifically those positing sinister cabals behind significant events, which they regard as inherently illogical, empirically defective, and ultimately divorced from reality. Controversial commentator Daniel Pipes, in his book Conspiracy (1997), for example, defined “conspiracy theory” as the “fear of a non-existent conspiracy” (p.21). In his Voodoo Histories (2009), journalist David Aaronovitch describes conspiracy theories as: “the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable” (p.5). According to Professor Robert Brotherton from the University of London, a conspiracy theory is:
…an unverified claim of conspiracy which is not the most plausible account of an event or situation, and with sensationalistic subject matter or implications. In addition, the claim will typically postulate unusually sinister and competent conspirators. Finally, the claim is based on weak kinds of evidence, and is epistemically self-insulating against disconfirmation (PsyPag Quarterly, September 2013, p.9).
The alternate perspective is that “conspiracy theory” is a label applied quite deliberately to discredit and delegitimise analysis that exposes abuses of power. This view is articulated by Professor Lance deHaven-Smith from Florida State University, author of Conspiracy Theory in America (2013). The term “conspiracy theory”, he contends, is in fact a “pejorative put-down” employed by “political elites to suppress mass suspicions” that may arise in response to “shocking political crimes” committed by those same elites (p.9). More recently, Australian academic David Coady argued that,
the net effect of terms such as “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracism” is to silence people who are the victims of conspiracy, or who (rightly or wrongly) suspect conspiracies may be occurring. These terms serve to herd respectable opinion in ways that suit the interests of the powerful (The Conversation, Sep. 13, 2018).
In their profligate use of “conspiracy theory”, the champions of “Russiagate” skepticism clearly seek to both discredit the entire Trump-Russia collusion narrative as baseless speculation, andsmear its advocates as irrational and deranged. Of course, there are some “Russiagate” theories, particularly those that paint Trump as a long-term, utterly compliant Russian puppet (now obviously beholden to Putin), that arguably warrant the “conspiracy theory” label. Proponents of these more extreme collusion scenarios include such luminaries as MSNBC’s much–maligned Rachel Maddow, Malcolm Nance, journalist Jonathan Chait,4 academic Seth Abramson, and the infamously unhinged Louise Mensch. The lodestar for these theorists (though not all refer to it) is the so-called Steele Dossier, produced by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele on behalf of Fusion GPS, a Washington DC based research and strategic intelligence firm, for the Clinton campaign. The dossier, only small fragments of which have been verified, is filled with lurid claims about Trump’s sexual deviancy, corrupt dealings in Russia, and deep involvement in the hacking of the DNC.
Yet, if we apply the criteria employed by academics to describe and identify conspiracy theories, much of the “Deep State coup” narrative also warrants that same despised label, probably to an even greater extent than the Russia-Trump Collusion narrative. This becomes evident if we consider the salient features of the “Deep State coup” narrative, starting with the description of the alleged conspirators behind the “coup” against Trump.
A key feature of a “conspiracy belief”, according to Professor Michael Barkun in his A Culture of Conspiracy (2003), is that “an organization made up of individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some sort of malevolent end” (p.3). As the late Richard Hofstadter observed in his classic essay on the “Paranoid Style”:
The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional) (Harper’s Magazine, Nov 1964).
The journalist Jonathan Kay in his book, Among the Truthers (2011), for example, noted that 9/11 “Truthers” had a particularly Manichean view of US power structures:
In the Truther vision of America, our elected government is nothing but a smokescreen for Deep State actors—arms dealers, oil companies, neoconservative ideologues, Strangelovian Pentagon warmongers—who pull our elected politicians puppet strings, and control our society at all levels through bribery, murder and extortion (p.xxi; emphasis added).
The “Deep State Coup” counter-narrative also promotes a sinister interpretation of US power structures, claiming that the entire “Russiagate” affair is a devious plot implemented by a cabal of Democrats and the “Deep State”, represented by corrupt law enforcement and intelligence agencies, aided by a compliant and complicit mainstream media, to overthrow Trump with a false “collusion narrative”. This can be seen in the description of the alleged plot by Patrick Henningsen, founder and editor of the 21st Century Wire website:
…a very real cabal comprised of embedded civil servants, intelligence agents and partisan political operatives in the media – all working to fabricate a grand Russian conspiracy designed to discredit and unseat the 45th President of the United States of America (New Dawn, May/June 2019, p.16; emphasis added).
A similar combination of conspirators was also identified in Caitlin Johnstone’s post-Barr victory dance. “Russiagate”, she wrote, was in fact:
a pernicious lie advanced by secretive government agencies who’ve been plotting to shove Russia off the world stage since the fall of the Soviet Union, by the Democrats who’ve had a vested interest in avoiding accountability for their failures and malfeasance in the 2016 election, and by the mass media who’ve been reaping extreme profits by peddling the clickbait sensationalist conspiracy theory that the Kremlin has infiltrated the highest levels of the US government [emphasis added].
For the duration of the FBI and Special Counsel investigations into this affair, this conspiratorial counter-narrative has a been a constant theme in countless articles and social media posts on websites and publications as varied as Gateway Pundit, Infowars, RealClearPolitics, World Net Daily, American Greatness, The Federalist, Consortium News and Judicial Watch. Other proponents of note include: Fox News contributor Sara A. Carter,; some anonymous twitter accounts, particularly Techno Fog and Undercover Huber; and a number of lawyers involved in defending Trump and his associates, specifically Michael Flynn’s current lawyer Sidney Powell, and husband-and-wife team Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing. It has also been promoted by mainstream conservative outlets such as the National Review (by Andrew McCarthy and the recently pardoned Conrad Black), Fox News (specifically Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson), The Hill (in articles by John Solomon), the Wall Street Journal (mainly by Kimberly Strassel), and Tablet (Lee Smith).
Conrad Black, for instance, a former long-time member of the secretive Bilderberg Group,5 itself the object of conspiratorial fascination since the 1950s, accused the directors of a number of US intelligence agencies of “trying to rig and then to undo” the result of the 2016 election by promoting the “fraud of collusion” (American Greatness, Jul. 18, 2018). At the heart of the “Trump–Russian collusion argument”, according to Black, was the Steele dossier, which was a “pack of lies”; but the Democrats were successful in “subverting high levels of the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department and FBI to pursue this canard with the zeal they did” (National Review, Sep. 12, 2018).
This “Deep State” coup conspiracy theory has also been the subject of numerous books, many written by Trump supporters and surrogates, mostly from the Fox News stable. Key examples include: Judge Jeanine Pirro, Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy (2018); Dan Bongino and D.C. McAllister, Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald J. Trump (2018); Gregg Jarrett’s The Russia Hoax (2018) and Witch Hunt (2019); Lee Smith’s The Plot Against the President (2019); and Andrew McCarthy’s Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig and Election and Destroy a Presidency (2019). Although claiming not to be endorsing a “conspiracy theory”, Bongino and McAllister nevertheless argue there were “intersections among the Clinton Campaign, the Obama Administration, intelligence agencies and foreign operatives” that created the “false narrative” that nearly cost Trump the presidency (Spygate, p.xii). In his first book Jarrett dismisses the Russia collusion narrative as a “hoax manufactured by unscrupulous high-ranking officials within the FBI and the Department of Justice” (Russia Hoax, pp.87-88). According to Judge Pirro:
This plot against Donald Trump and every American who voted for him goes all the way to the top of the previous administration. It was conceived and planned at the top and executed by like-minded Deep Staters in law enforcement, the intelligence community, and their Swamp Party talking heads in the media (Liars, Leakers and Liberals, p.81).
McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor and contributing editor to National Review, offers almost the same formulation of the “real collusion scheme”:
In 2016, President Obama put the awesome powers of the United States government’s law-enforcement and intelligence apparatus in service of the Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential campaign, the Democratic party, and the progressive Beltway establishment. This scheme had two parts…
Plan A was to get Mrs. Clinton elected President of the United States…
Plan B was the insurance policy: an investigation that Donald Trump, in the highly unlikely event he were elected, would be powerless to shut down. An investigation that would simultaneously monitor and taint him. An investigation that internalized Clinton campaign-generated opposition research, limning Trump and his campaign as complicit in Russian espionage. An investigation that would hunt for a crime under the guise of counterintelligence, build an impeachment case under the guise of hunting for a crime, and seek to make Trump un-reelectable under the guise of building an impeachment case (Ball of Collusion, pp.vii-viii; emphasis added).
Also advancing this theory in a slew of recent publications and other media are a motley collective of individuals questioned and, in some cases, indicted and convicted by Mueller’s investigation. These include: Jerome Corsi’s Killing the Deep State (2018) and Silent No More (2019); Ted Malloch’s The Plot to Destroy Trump (2018); George Papadopoulos’s Deep State Target (2019); and Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie’s Trump’s Enemies (2018). In his book, Killing the Deep State, for instance, Corsi claimed that:
President Trump is the target of coup d’etat being undertaken by the Deep State, including the CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies that maintain a commitment to a globalist New World Order (Killing the Deep State, p.146).
While Papadopoulos asserted in his book:
The deep state is the movement of anti-Trump operations in America’s three branches of government who have been working against Donald Trump, his campaign, and his administration to strip it of authority (Deep State Target, p.112).
Similar theories have been promoted by the supposedly leftist critics of “Russiagate”. Greenwald, for example, has repeatedly accused the “Deep State”, primarily the CIA, of not only opposing Trump, but actively “subverting” him. Pointing to the implicit endorsement of the Steele dossier by US intelligence agencies, Greenwald claimed that the “military industrial complex” that Eisenhower had warned about, was “engaged in open warfare against a duly elected president” (The Intercept, Jan. 12, 2017). As he told Democracy Now in 2017, this was because: “The CIA and the intelligence community were vehemently in support of Clinton and vehemently opposed to Trump, from the beginning.” The CIA opposed Trump, Greenwald wrote in the Intercept, because he had rejected their agenda:
Clinton defended and intended to extend the decades long international military order on which the CIA and Pentagon’s preeminence depends, while Trump — through a still-uncertain mix of instability and extremist conviction — posed a threat to it.6
Greenwald repeated this argument in an interview with Dazed in December 2018, where he provided his thoughts on the growing attractiveness of conspiracy theories, and why people had lost faith in traditional mainstream sources of information:
Some stem from truth – with the Trump presidency, there is a very powerful faction in Washington, the Deep State, military-industrial complex, the forces of the CIA or FBI, whatever you want to call it, who have been conspiring to subvert the Trump presidency because they dislike the outcome of the election [emphasis added].
Focusing on the leaks of “intercepted communications” supporting the Russiagate theory, Michael Tracey had expressed concern that “unelected spooks [were] arrogating to themselves the power to directly undermine the elected president.” And following Mueller’s indictment of Russian intelligence officers for hacking the DNC, Aaron Maté suggested that “[w]hoever supplied the intelligence that has fueled this thing from the beginning…” and even proposed that US spy agencies were “inventing intelligence…” for this purpose.
Rush to Judgement
On March 24, 2019, Attorney-General Barr wrote to the heads of the Judiciary Committees in the US Senate and House of Representatives, to advise of them of the “principal conclusions” reached by the Special Counsel’s lengthy investigation. On page 2 of his missive, Barr provided this headline finding:
The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Already convinced that Mueller’s investigation was part of a diabolical plot aimed at unseating Trump, the Russiagate skeptics were quick to not only embrace Barr’s initial letter, but to also assert that it validated the entire “Deep State coup” theory. Naturally, among those leading the charge was Trump himself. In addition to repeatedly claiming “total EXONERATION” by Mueller’s report (Figure 1), Trump complained the investigation had happened because “a lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things, very bad things. I would say treasonous things against our country…”
In subsequent statements to the press, Trump outlined his view that he was the victim of a failed conspiracy to overthrow him:
“This was an attempted coup. This was an attempted takedown of a president, and we beat them. We beat them. We fight back, and you know why we fight back? Because I knew how illegal this whole thing was. It was a scam…” (New York Post, Apr. 10, 2019).
It was an “illegal witch hunt”, an “illegal investigation”, Trump asserted, seeming to imply that Mueller’s team had committed “treason.” “INVESTIGATE THE INVESTIGATORS”, “THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN” Trump blurted in a series of tweets (Figure 2), ahead of the imminent release of the redacted version of Mueller’s report.
Republican Congressional Representative Devin Nunes, called for an investigation of the “origins of the investigation” and announced his plan to refer the “dirty cops” allegedly behind it to Attorney-General Barr. “People need to go prison for this”, wrote Charlie Kirk, Founder and President of the pro-Trump conservative student movement Turning Point USA. “There need to be consequences for this,” declared Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson on the news that Mueller had finished:
Once the Mueller report appears and it becomes incontrovertible that, whatever his faults, Donald Trump did not collude with the Russians, the many people who’ve persistently claimed on the basis of no evidence that he did collude with the Russians must be punished. Not indicted or imprisoned, but thoroughly shamed and forced to apologize.
Not everyone called for punishment, but Mueller’s findings, as reported by Barr were seen as validating claims the investigation was due to a conspiracy involving the “Deep State” and the Democrats. Matthew Walther, a columnist for The Week, for example, celebrated the fact that Mueller “found no evidence of a Russia conspiracy”, which was no more than an “absurd hypothesis spread by a paid agent of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.” It was, he asserted in another piece, a theory based on a series of “bad-faith insinuations” that had received “the uncritical support of a Washington establishment that resents Trump’s victory.”
In a series of posts on the avowedly pro-Trump American Greatness website, Victor Davis Hanson both celebrated Mueller’s reported finding whilst expressing his hope that those behind the “Russian collusion hoax” would soon be held to account for their “leaking, collusion, lying, and obstruction…” This list of the damned included former CIA Director John Brennan, whom Hanson claimed had “reached out to foreign intelligence services, primary British and Australian, to surveille and entrap Trump aides…” He also claimed “many FBI officials and contacts” had leaked information to the media to support “hit pieces on Russian collusion” as part of a strategy by “Fusion GPS, along with some in the FBI, to seed unverified anti-Trump gossip to warp the election.” These “Washington politcos and administrative state careerists”, he charged, were united by their belief that Trump was “so abhorrent that he should be prevented from winning the 2016 election.” Failing that they aimed to prevent his inauguration or remove him from office.
In a follow-up article about “progressive plotters” Hanson found fault with those journalists who failed to blame the real suspects:
No reporter seems to care that Hillary Clinton hired a foreign national to work with other foreign nationals to sabotage, first, her opponent’s campaign, then his transition and his presidency, along with the wink and nod help from key Obama officials at the Department of Justice, State Department, National Security Council, FBI and CIA.
In The Federalist (Apr. 01, 2019) Mollie Hemingway claimed the “Trump-Russia conspiracy” was no more than an “information operation” originally promoted by Hillary Clinton’s campaign that was subsequently “picked up by Obama’s intelligence agencies and spread far and wide by American media…” She accused Obama’s intelligence officials of briefing the “completely unverified claims” of the Steele Dossier to Obama and Trump, and then leaking that fact to the media so it would “legitimize the claims and undermine” Trump. Federalist contributor, Adam Mill (a non-de-plume for a Kansas City attorney), also blamed the Steele Dossier: “one cannot escape the fact that this entire special counsel effort began with a dossier procured by Hillary Clinton to defeat and (later) inflict revenge on Trump.” They were joined by Federalist co-founder Sean Davis who insisted it was in fact Clinton’s campaign who “colluded with shady Russia oligarchs and sketchy Russian sources to subvert American democracy…” The entire plot, claimed Davis, was actually the “brainchild” of Christopher Steele, the former British spy who had produced the infamous dossier.
The coterie of leftist Russiagate skeptics – Greenwald, Maté, Taibbi, and Tracey – in the midst of their victory laps in the wake of Barr’s letter, also promoted explanations for the origins of Mueller’s investigation that were remarkably similar to the Deep State coup theory. Writing in The Nation, for instance, Maté argued that:
Top intelligence officials, both current and retired, also owe us an explanation: not just for their explosive statements….but for their investigatory decisions from the start. That includes relying on the Steele dossier to seek a surveillance warrant against Trump’s former campaign adviser Carter Page, and to open a counterintelligence investigation on Trump himself, motivated in part by disagreement with his public embrace of Russia [emphasis added].
Appearing on Democracy Now (Mar. 25, 2019), Greenwald denounced the Trump-Russia story as a “complete and total fraud and scam…” and accused the CIA, NSA and FBI of “lying” to the US public by “engineering and manipulating” media leaks about Trump’s alleged Russia ties. In his wrap-up, excerpted from his book Hate Inc, Taibbi likened Russia-gate to the WMD myths eagerly and uncritically taken up by the media in 2002-2003 that precipitated the US-led invasion of Iraq:
The Steele report occupies the same role in #Russiagate the tales spun by Ahmed Chalabi occupied in the WMD screwup. Once again, a narrative became turbo-charged when Officials With Motives pulled the press corps by its nose to a swamp of unconfirmable private assertions.
A triumphant Tracey also pounced, accusing Democrats caught up in the “conspiratorial frenzy” of the “groundless Russia fever dream” of having “insulated Trump from legitimate criticism…” Not only were “Trump’s very real crimes and corruptions” apparently ignored, but the Democrats had ceded to Trump the authority to attack the “Deep State”, which had been acting “unilaterally to thwart him, on grounds now resolutely proven by Mueller to have been extraordinarily flimsy” (Fortune, Mar. 28, 2019).
Official reports denying or refuting charges that members of the ruling classes have engaged in a criminal conspiracy, have long been treated with intense skepticism, if not outright derision, by conspiracists. There are literally hundreds of books rejecting the findings of the Warren Commission Report that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Opposed to the Warren Commission are a plethora of theories implicating the CIA, the Mafia, the “military-industrial complex”, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Mossad, and a host of other sinister combinations and cabals in JFK’s murder. Similarly there are countless books, blogs and other media devoted to: disputing the 9/11 Commission’s contention that al Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks; contesting the Hutton Inquiry’s findings that former UK Ministry of Defence weapons inspector David Kelly committed suicide; rejecting the conclusions of the Operation Paget inquest that refuted allegations that Princess Diana had been murdered; denying the validity of President Obama’s birth certificate; going beyond the inconclusive findings of the House of Representatives Select Committee report into the Benghazi affair, to accuse Obama and Hillary Clinton of being behind the “deepest, darkest, dirtiest political scandal of recent American history”; and most recently rejecting the findings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against rebels in the city of Douma in 2018, accusing OPCW officials of “tampering with evidence” on behalf of an “oligarchic power alliance.”
In light of this record of rejected official reports, the sudden embrace of Mueller’s findings could be seen as a unique moment in conspiratorial lore: perhaps for the first time ever, conspiracists could support an official report into allegations of illegal and corrupt activity by the holder of the highest political office in the land that exonerated its powerful subject. This was all the more remarkable given that many of these same theorists had repeatedly attacked Mueller and his investigation as agents of a “Deep State” plot. Indeed, some of them had accused the “Deep State” of conspiring to cover-up acts of corruption and murder by Obama and the Clintons; or even, more modestly, had claimed that Hillary Clinton had escaped indictment over the email affair because the FBI had deemed her “too important to be treated the same as everyone else under the law” (The Intercept, Jul. 06, 2016).
But this eager embrace of Attorney-General Barr’s carefully crafted summation of Mueller’s report exonerating President Trump was very much in line with the core traits of conspiracy theories, particularly their attitude towards evidence. Some academic observers argue that conspiracy theorists have a “double standard in evidence evaluation”, where any information that supports a particular conspiracy theory is “readily accepted; [but] denials from official sources are subject to endless scrutiny.”7 A harsher evaluation of this trait is described by Lee McIntyre from Boston University, in the case of “science deniers” (i.e. “climate deniers, anti-vaxxers”), who generally employ:
the ridiculous (double) standard of evidence…whereby no evidence is good enough to convince them of something they don’t want to believe, yet no evidence is required to get them to accept something they do want to believe [emphasis in original]
As its headline finding confirmed their preconceived notions, most “Deep State Coup” theorists were bound to not only endorse Barr’s brief letter, but defend it against critics who accused him of whitewashing Mueller’s report. This line would be maintained in the face of evidence that Barr’s letter had not only failed to accurately reflect Mueller’s conclusions, but that Mueller and his team objected to Barr’s version of their report.
Almost from the moment it was released numerous mainstream media commentators were suspicious that Barr’s brief letter was attempting to spin Mueller’s findings in Trump’s favour. Of note was that it quoted just a handful of sentence fragments from Mueller’s report. Jed Shugerman, writing in Slate (Mar. 24, 2019) for example, observed that instead of sharing the principal conclusions of the Mueller Report verbatim,
Barr distributed parts of four of Mueller’s sentences throughout his letter—three of which offer any kind of conclusions, and none of which even appear to be complete sentences from Mueller’s text. Those sentences are obviously helpful for Trump legally and politically, but Barr’s short letter—one page on Russia, one page on obstruction—raises more questions than it even tries to answer.
“This is four pages and there’s not a single full sentence in here that’s quoted the Mueller report,” complained NBC’s Ari Melber, “Every quote from the Mueller report itself is a partial sentence.” CNN political analyst Zachary B. Wolf found that:
Mueller invested two years and employed scores of attorneys and investigators, and as of now, the public has seen 74 words from his full report. That jumps to 89 if you include the single footnote in Barr’s summary and 101 if you count the title (CNN, Mar. 29 2019).
A jointly authored article at Lawfare (Mar. 24, 2019) also took issue with the lack of detail:
What makes the document more complicated still is the fact that it offers only a skeletal description of Mueller’s report. It only purports to convey Mueller’s top-line findings and does not include any of the evidence or legal analysis that underlies those findings. It doesn’t tell any of the stories that the Mueller report will tell. It only distills and announces two high-altitude legal conclusions from those stories [emphasis added].
That Barr’s letter may have been misleading both because of its sparse references to Mueller’s report and Barr’s previous form as a “cover-up” specialist;8 was disputed by a number of Russiagate skeptics who insisted that had his letter misrepresented Mueller’s report, it was inconceivable that either Mueller or members of his team would not complain. Glenn Greenwald, seemingly intent on painting Russiagaters as being in deep denial about Mueller’s findings, was one of the most prominent proponents of this view. In a series of incendiary tweets (Figure 3), Greenwald repeatedly mocked the notion that Barr was “radically misrepresenting the true findings of the Mueller report & Mueller and his team of high-powered lawyers are just sitting silently by while he does it.”
Challenged by a critic, Greenwald insisted this was not based on any belief in Barr’s integrity, but because “Bob Mueller & his team of 19 aggressive prosecutors would not sit silently by as Barr lies about the 22 months of work they did.” This argument was taken up by others. Caitlin Johnstone, for example, wrote on March 26:
Some insist that Attorney General William Barr is holding back key elements of the Mueller report, a claim which is premised on the absurd belief that Mueller would allow Barr to lie about the results of the investigation without speaking up publicly.
And again on March 30, this time directly recycling one of Greenwald’s tweets:
As other analysts have noted repeatedly, the belief that the full Mueller report contains shocking and incriminating evidence of Russian collusion is premised on the idea that Robert Mueller, the paragon of virtue and integrity according to these same people, is simply sitting on the sidelines allowing William Barr to lie about his investigation uncorrected. Mueller… has not stepped forward to say that Barr has lied about his entire two-year investigation as they are claiming. There has not been so much as a single anonymous leak from anyone on his team to the Washington Post contradicting anything Barr’s said.
Another of Greenwald’s fellow-travellers, Aaron Maté, also contributed to this narrative:
Prominent Russiagate peddlers are refusing to accept that their conspiracy theory has collapsed. Their new one is that Barr is hiding the truth. This self-denial is what got us Trump & Russiagate in the 1st place: elites prioritizing their own privilege rather than face reality (Twitter, Apr. 01, 2019; emphasis added).
The sincerity of this position was soon tested when media reporting emerged that members of Mueller’s team believed that Barr’s letter had not accurately represented their findings. For example, the New York Times (Apr. 03, 2019) reported that:
Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations [emphasis added]
For the benefit of Johnstone, even the Washington Post (Apr. 04, 2019) had a report citing “people familiar with the matter” who were presumably in contact with members of Mueller’s team, who questioned the accuracy of Barr’s missive:
Barr told lawmakers that he concluded the evidence was not sufficient to prove that the president obstructed justice.
But members of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant.
“It was much more acute than Barr suggested,” said one person, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity [emphasis added].
NBC News (Apr. 04, 2019) also reported:
Some members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team have expressed frustration that Attorney General William Barr cleared President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice, and they believe the evidence that Trump sought to impede the investigation is stronger than Barr suggested in his March letter summarizing Mueller’s findings, a U.S. official who has spoken with the members tells NBC News [emphasis added].
Greenwald, though, dismissed the reported leaks (Figure 4), even though they clearly refuted his contention that the Mueller team’s silence had affirmed the accuracy of Barr’s letter. Instead of Mueller’s “aggressive prosecutors”, Greenwald emphasised that these “anonymous complaints” only focused on the obstruction issue, something the “zombie”-like “Trump/Russia conspiracists” failed to grasp. He also described as “sad” how the “Trump/Russia conspiracy dead enders” were falsely claiming the reports were referring to Barr withholding “incriminating evidence about the conspiracy.”
A further test emerged when the redacted version of the Mueller Report was finally released on April 18, 2019 providing various analysts an opportunity to compare the narrative contained in Barr’s letter with the actual report. Comparative analysis of the two documents quickly highlighted the deliberate omissions and deceptions of the first document. Charlie Savage, writing in the New York Times (Apr. 20, 2019), for example, compared Barr’s excerpts to the actual report and found in each case the Attorney-General’s careful cherry-picking had distorted the report’s findings. According to Savage:
- Barr took Mueller’s words out of context to suggest that Trump had no motive to obstruct justice, when Mueller had proposed a number of motives.
- Barr omitted words suggesting there was complicit conduct that fell short of “coordination” between the Trump campaign and the Russian Government.
- Barr truncated Mueller’s explanation of what “coordination” meant and did not mean.
- Barr omitted the reason why Mueller highlighted the thoroughness of his investigation – to leave open the possibility that after Trump left office other prosecutors could examine the evidence for potential indictment.
Based on this or their own assessment, numerous other commentators concluded that Barr’s letter had “failed to give the full, nuanced picture of the report’s analysis” (Molly Olmstead, Slate); in fact he had clearly “twisted Mueller’s words” (Marshall Cohen, CNN); delivering an account “full of half-truths and highly misleading statements”, argued former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti (Politico, Apr. 19, 2019). According to Salvador Rizzo in the Washington Post (Apr. 19, 2019) “in some cases, Barr’s characterizations were incomplete or misleading. The Mueller report is more damning of Trump than the attorney general indicated.” Steve Denning in Forbes (Apr. 19 2019) argued it was now “apparent that Attorney General Barr has been misleading the American people about [Mueller’s] findings…Some are omissions. Some are evasions or distortions. Some appear to be deliberate untruths.” “Barr’s selective, partial quotations from the Mueller text amounted to brazen, dishonest sins of omission”, wrote Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone (Apr. 19, 2019).
Seemingly unmoved by these assessments and ignoring the extensive media reporting that now contradicted his claims Greenwald continued to defend Barr’s letter. For example, in an interview with Michael Tracey on April 25, Greenwald twice made the risible claim that the lack of pushback from Mueller staffers was proof that Barr had been accurate:
The reason that I believe that the letter, more or less accurately summarized the findings of the Mueller report was twofold. One, obviously there was Bob Mueller sitting there having just spent 22 months of his life devoted to an investigation, and then he wrote a 420 page report. He wasn’t going to let somebody radically lie about what it was that he did or didn’t find [emphasis added].
But the reason it was rational to assume that William Barr was accurately summarizing the findings, was because you had Robert Mueller…and a whole team of people who knew what the report said [who] weren’t going to let them lie [emphasis added].
There was a similar, if more heated reaction from the “Deep State coup” truthers to the leaking of Mueller’s March 27 letter to Barr (Figure 5) complaining that the Attorney-General’s letter of March 24 “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions” resulting in “public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation” (Washington Post, Apr 30, 2019).
A combination of Russia-gate skeptics, Trump supporters and surrogates, portrayed Mueller’s letter as an insignificant, desperate attempt at attention-seeking in a bid to distract from the facts of Trump’s exoneration. For example, in a series of tweets Aaron Maté dismissed Mueller’s disagreement with Barr as “trivial”; it was “a simple dispute: Mueller wanted his summaries released, Barr didn’t.” In a May 10 tweet, Maté lambasted “Russiagate peddlers” for supposedly claiming “Barr misrepresented Mueller’s report – even though Mueller’s letter never claimed that…”9 The National Review’s Andrew McCarthy also argued that “Mueller is precisely not saying that Barr misrepresented his key findings.” The real issue was that Mueller and the “Clinton/Obama minions he recruited to staff the case wrote the report with a certain mood music in mind”, but they had been outplayed by Barr who “gave us just the no-crime bottom line.”
Other, mostly pro-Trump commentators, made similar arguments that Mueller was upset because Barr had torpedoed his communications strategy. “Barr’s letter was accurate”, wrote Ben Shapiro, but Mueller “was pissed because the summary didn’t include the generalized mood of the report.” According to Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton, Mueller’s letter was evidence of his frustration that his “smear operation wasn’t going as planned.” This confirmed that Mueller’s investigation was an “abuse of power targeting [Trump].” Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative provocateur and beneficiary of a Trump pardon, dismissed Mueller’s letter as “silly” as it “basically frets that his rhetorical mood music was ignored.”
Such commentary conceded that the intent of Barr’s letter was to shape public perceptions of the Mueller Report in Trump’s favour, ahead of its release. And in the view of some commentators it had worked exactly as intended. David Graham, writing in The Atlantic (May 01, 2019), for example, argued that Barr’s letter had “managed to mislead the public and Congress, spinning Mueller’s findings in a way that hobbled their impact and protected the president.” The claim of exoneration in Barr’s letter had dominated media reporting in the weeks before the report was finally released, benefitting Trump:
As a way of defusing the findings of the investigation, it was tremendously successful. Even though the report can read as an impeachment referral to Congress, by the time its full text was released, the ardor for impeachment hearings among legislators and the public had faded.
Ironically, it was only when the Mueller Report was finally released that the triumphant “Deep State coup” proponents would change course and effectively repudiate the “Trump exonerated” message of Barr’s missive by disputing Mueller’s findings. There were already portents of this forthcoming wave of denial within Barr’s summary.
1 The extensive and regular personal contacts between Trump and Hannity have been noted by multiple sources. For example, according to journalist Michael Wolff, Trump and Hannity “spoke as often as six or seven times a day” (Siege, p.148); and Olivia Nuzzi reported in New York Magazine (May 14, 2018) that Hannity usually called Trump late almost every evening, but “[o]n some days, they speak multiple times with one calling the other to inform him of the latest developments.” Such reporting was largely confirmed in the book Team of Vipers (2019) by former White House communications aide Cliff Sims who observed that: “Hannity…was one of the few people outside the White House who spoke to the President as much as the media seemed to think he did. Most people inflated their access to Trump; Hannity didn’t have to…[T]he two discussed everything from personnel matters to communication strategy” (p.271). Hannity and Trump were also both clients of the now imprisoned lawyer, Michael Cohen. Not surprisingly, Hannity’s name has also turned up repeatedly in documents associated with both Mueller’s investigation revealing his role as a backchannel between Trump and Paul Manafort while the latter was being investigated (Buzzfeed News, Jan. 15, 2020); and the current Ukraine affair, mainly in the documents released by one of the alleged conspirators Lev Parnas (Alternet, Jan. 17, 2020).
2 There are numerous examples, such as a 1920s academic article that described as a “conspiracy theory”, the apparent “belief of the abolitionists being that the Know Nothing movement was created by southern slave holders…” (Indiana Magazine of History, March 1922, p.66). In the 1950s famed American sociologist Daniel Bell used the term to disparage C. Wright Mills book The Power Elite (1956). According to Bell: “Although Mills contends that he does not believe in conspiracy theory, his loose account of the centralization of power comes suspiciously close to it” (American Journal of Sociology, November 1958, p.241).
3 The article in question, however, went on to describe the findings of a recent study that suggested the term “conspiracy theory” had lost some of its negative connotations. The author of the study cited speculated that the term had acquired some legitimacy due to romanticized portrayals in popular media and also the general conflation of conspiracies with “corruption and political intrigue” (Pacific Standard, May 3, 2017).
4 Chait’s descent into the more extreme Russiagate theorising occurred in his lengthy New York Magazine (Jul. 09, 2018) piece. After describing how Trump’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1987 preceded an early public attack from the then property developer on US military support for its allies, Chait floated the highly unlikely idea there was a “small but real chance—10 percent? 20 percent?—that [Trump] has been covertly influenced or personally compromised by a hostile foreign power for decades…”
5 By his own account, Conrad Black attended his first Bilderberg meeting in 1981 and in 1986 went on to become the co-leader of the Canadian Bilderberg group (Black, A Life in Progress, pp.262, 263). Bilderberg Meeting Reports and other public releases identify Black as a Bilderberg Steering Committee member from 1986 through to his last meeting in 2003. In his first memoir, Black spoke highly of Bilderberg’s “animated social sessions” and how it gave him “a powerful and entirely agreeable sense of community with some very talented and prominent people” (ibid, p.263). Writing in the Canadian National Post (Jun. 10, 2006), after boasting about having invited no less than five Canadian prime ministers to Bilderberg, Black had some condescending words for “conspiracy theorists” about both Bilderberg and Davos: “…there is no conspiracy. These are convivial sessions… None of these gatherings commands, dispenses, or believes in any loyalty of its own…[T]hey don’t change the world at all.” This missive came after Black had been asked in 2004 to discontinue his association with Bilderberg because of the charges pending against him. In his second memoir, reflecting on his expulsion from Bilderberg, Black claims to have become “tired of Bilderberg”, in particular its “Euro-federalists”, “patronizing tribalism” and “group think” (Black, A Matter of Principle, p.200).
6 Consistency on this particular matter, however, has not been Greenwald’s strong point. In 2016 he was castigating the Establishment for hypocritically disowning Trump over his support for torture and a belligerent foreign policy. Greenwald suggested the public outrage of the elites was largely confected as Trump was “merely a natural extension of the mainstream rhetorical and policy framework that has been laid, not some radical departure from it.” In addition, Greenwald claimed that Trump had been “fully integrated within and embraced by America’s circles of power and celebrity, including by those who now want to pretend to find him so hideously offensive” (The Intercept, Mar. 06, 2016). Yet at the same time Greenwald was also clearly arguing that Trump was deviating from that “mainstream”. For example, in an article devoted to attacking Hilary Clinton at length for embracing an “extremist” pro-Israel agenda, he briefly noted that in contrast Trump had “vowed ‘neutrality’ on Israel/Palestine” (Intercept, Feb. 18, 2016). Responding to another Intercept journalist, Greenwald explained Trump’s supposedly neutral stance on Israel as being due to his “non-interventionist mindset” (Mar. 11, 2016). In a subsequent interview with Slate (Jul. 28, 2016), Greenwald attributed to Trump a “coherent philosophy that is noninterventionist, isolationist and ubernationalistic.”
Early into Trump’s first year, however, Greenwald had attempted to walk this back, arguing that Trump’s “non-interventionism” should not be equated with “pacificism”. He even admonished a number of unnamed commentators who had apparently confused these terms, accusing them of having “ignorantly claim[ed] that Trump’s escalatory war on terror bombing is in conflict with his advocacy of non-interventionism.” Greenwald then redefined Trump’s foreign policy as: “Fight fewer wars and for narrower reasons, but be more barbaric and criminal in prosecuting the ones that are fought” (The Intercept, Mar. 27, 2017).
A few months later Greenwald offered yet another formulation to explain the conspiratorial hostility of the “permanent national security structure in Washington” towards Trump, manifest in “anti-Trump leaks” from “anonymous CIA and other Deep State operatives…” The denizens of the Deep State had objected to a wider range of real and imagined faults in Trump; not just his supposed “non-interventionist” stance or, oddly enough, his desire for better relations with Moscow along the same lines as Obama had sought (Greenwald offered no explanation as to why Obama was not targeted for the same treatment for his Russia stance, unless that was the underlying intent of the GOP-driven Benghazi investigations). Instead, they were targeting Trump because of “his campaign positions, his outsider status, his unstable personality, his witting and unwitting unmasking of the truth of U.S. hegemony, the embarrassment he causes in Western capitals, his reckless unpredictability — Trump posed a threat to their power centers” (The Intercept, Aug. 06, 2017).
Greenwald’s approach, inaccurately positing Trump as a full outlier, also incorrectly portrays the US national security establishment as monolithic and committed to the neo-conservative agenda, when it was just one faction that was briefly ascendant under Bush and Cheney. But the notion that Trump was in any way a serious “non-interventionist”, defies logic and is at odds with Trump’s obviously militarist foreign policy, one that has proven to be an obvious boon for the military industrial complex, as other commentators such as Sheldon Richman and Daniel Larison have cogently argued. In any case, it is more likely that Trump’s numerous and significant behavioural and intellectual shortcomings (detailed in numerous books and media accounts), rather than his crude militarism, have aroused the ire and disdain of the US national security establishment.
7 These observations were made by Robert Strong in his review of Barbara Honneger’s book October Surprise (1989), in which he criticises Honneger for making her case “in a fashion that permits her book to be dismissed as the work of a common conspiracy theorist gone off the deep end of history.” Robert Strong “October Surprises”, Intelligence & National Security, April 1993, pp.229 & 230.
8 For a more detailed analysis of Barr’s “cover-up” record see Thom Hartmann, “Has ‘Cover-Up General’ William Barr Struck Again?”, Common Dreams, Mar. 26, 2019; Greg Walters, “William Barr’s been accused of a presidential cover-up before”, Vice News, Apr. 18, 2019; and Ryan Cooper, “Attorney General Barr has always been a cover up specialist”, The Week, May 03, 2019.
9 In other social media postings Maté insisted that he was championing “basic logic, which tells us that Barr somehow misrepresenting Mueller on collusion is a conspiracy theory to cover up for Mueller’s rejection of your Russia one” (Apr. 14, 2019). He made a similar declaration on the eve of the release of the Mueller Report: “This isn’t about trusting Barr. It’s about trusting logic. Do you think Mueller would stay silent if Barr misrepresented him? And could Barr get away w/ flagrantly lying about a report we’re about to see for ourselves in a few hours? Faith in Russiagate requires faulty thinking” (Apr. 19, 2019; emphasis added). Again, as with Greenwald, this position was only sustained by ignoring or downplaying reports of disquiet from Mueller and his team about the content of Barr’s letter.