Collusion or Coup? The ‘Russiagate Skeptics’ & the Mueller Report – Part 2
By Will Banyan (Copyright © September 26, 2020)
“This was a coup. This was an attempted overthrow of the United States government.”
President Donald J. Trump, interview with Sean Hannity, April 25, 2019
“Much of the ‘left’ has spent three years peddling a debunked militaristic conspiracy theory generated by the FBI and CIA — also a highly curious phenomenon.”
Journalist Michael Tracey, tweet on May 2, 2019
“The preponderance of evidence makes this very simple–there was a broad, coordinated effort by the Obama Administration, with the help of foreign governments, to target Donald Trump and paint him as a stooge of Russia.”
Former CIA Analyst Larry C. Johnson, Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, May 3, 2019
In a blistering article in The New Republic (Mar. 28, 2019), soon after the release of Attorney General Barr’s letter summarising Mueller’s findings, Alex Shephard took issue with the “smug” declarations of various Russiagate skeptics that “media coverage of Mueller’s probe was not just a debacle but perhaps even a generational failure.” Not only was the media coverage of the affair far from the “baseless”, he argued, but the Russiagate skeptics were demonstrating exactly the same behaviour they had been criticising:
[In their] rush to celebrate the latest nugget of Russia news, to declare its significance with hyperbolic certainty. Convinced of their own righteousness, the skeptics are conflating embarrassing cable news talking heads, a handful of discredited stories, and the speculative fantasy that Trump was a Russian asset with the entire field of journalism—while leaving out a lot of relevant information that proves that the Russia story is anything but a hoax.
Perhaps more prescient was his prediction that Mueller’s report, when it was finally released, “may contain new information that’s damning for Trump and his supporters in the media—definitive evidence of misjudgement and wrongdoing that justifies the extensive media coverage.” Although he offered no expectation on how the “Deep State coup” theorists would react to such information, there were already warning signs in Barr’s letter the “Deep State coup” theory would not be directly validated by Mueller.
The fundamental problem for the “Deep State coup” theorists was, aside from the headline finding Mueller was unable to establish the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated” with the “Russian government”, his report (as summarized by Barr) largely refuted their conspiratorial counter-narrative of Trump being the victim of an elaborate “Deep State” plot. On the contrary, in its three-paragraph section on “Russian Interference in the 2016 Election”, Barr’s letter outlined four data points about Russia’s activities, thus confirming key components of the so-called “Collusion Truthers” narrative that had been repeatedly derided by the “Deep State coup” theorists as nothing more than vexatious fabrications. A comparison of these findings with the “Deep State coup” theorists counter-narrative not only reveals the extent of this conflict, but also helps explain why they went on to contest Mueller’s findings, arguably to a greater extent than the “Collusion Truthers”.
Russian Interference in the 2016 Election:
- “The report outlines the Russian effort to influence the election and documents crimes committed by persons associated with the Russian government in connection with those efforts.”
In Barr’s letter this was merely a statement of fact about the subject of the investigation, yet from the outset the entire notion of Russian interference in 2016 election has been disputed, and even rejected, by many Russiagate skeptics. Leading the charge has, of course, been Trump. During the campaign Trump repeatedly cast doubt on official claims of Russians interference. In the first presidential debate with Clinton in September 2016, for example, Trump disputed Russian culpability in the hacking of the DNC, proposing other culprits:
“She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?”
Blaming China or obese hackers became Trump’s standard method of deflection even after he had assumed control of the same US Intelligence Community that had found Russia was responsible:
At a press conference with President Putin on 16 July 2018 in Helsinki, Finland, Trump appeared to accept the strong denial from Russia’s leader. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be…”, Trump stated. “So I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump added later, “but I will tell you that president Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Even after the Helsinki debacle, Trump continued to equivocate. Reading from a prepared statement at the White House two days later Trump appeared to reverse his Helsinki gaffe and accept the findings of the US intelligence community, but he still kept his options open:
“I’ve said this many times. I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there [emphasis added].”
Otherwise, in numerous tweets Trump had dismissed claims of Russian interference as little more than a “lame excuse”, a “Democrat EXCUSE” for losing the election; the Democrats had “made up” the “Russian story” as an “excuse for running a terrible campaign.” Another complaint was why Obama had failed to act or tell the Trump campaign when he learned about the “so-called Russian Meddling”; the reason was simple: “it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!”1
Some Russiagate skeptics have followed Trump’s lead and explicitly rejected claims there was any Russian interference in the 2016 election. In July 2018, for example, author James Howard Kunstler, reflecting on President Putin’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News in Helsinki, took the Russian President’s flat denials at face value:
So, listen to me: Russia did not “attack” us. Trolling on Facebook is not an attack on the nation. The allegation that Russia “hacked” Hillary’s email and the DNC server is so far without evidence, and computer forensics strongly suggests that the information was transferred onto a flash-drive on its journey to Wikileaks. And, of course, the information itself, concerning embarrassing unethical hijinks among Democratic Party officials, was genuine and truthful — they “meddled” in their own primary elections [emphasis added].
Another tactic has been to concede Russian interference occurred, but to argue its aim was to cause chaos more generally rather than to specifically support Trump. In his book, The Russia Hoax (2018), for example, Fox News legal commentator Gregg Jarrett insisted Russia’s motive was “to sow discord in the election process whenever possible” (p.89). In their tome, Spygate (2018), Dan Bongino and D.C. McAllister argued:
Russia, however, had only one thing in mind when it interfered in the US presidential election, and it wasn’t necessarily to help any one candidate win. Through disruption and chaos, trolls, bots and agitators, it should weaken the United States by casting doubt on the very principles that undergird the American democratic system…In the end this interference affected both the Trump and Clinton campaigns, creating no clear advantage for either candidate (Spygate, p.173; emphasis added).
Noting House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ claims the Russians had also targeted Republicans in their spear-phishing campaign—although no Republican emails were publicly released—Federalist contributor Willis Krumholz concluded:
if the Russians targeted both sides it sounds more like routine interference—that should still be condemned—than a super-secret spy plot to change the course of American history (Federalist, Jul. 20, 2018; emphasis added).
Perhaps the most important official target of the “Deep State coup” proponents seeking to contest claims of Russian interference was the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA), Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections, a combined assessment of the FBI, CIA and the National Security Agency, published on January 6, 2017 (Figure 1). Controversially released ahead of Trump’s inauguration, the ICA report found that:
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.
We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him (p.ii).
According to the ICA, the Russian campaign involved both “covert intelligence operations”, such as the hacking of the DNC, and “overt efforts” to influence the results by disseminating pro-Trump/anti-Clinton propaganda through social media.
Although not nearly as central to the “Deep State coup” narrative as the Steele Dossier, Russiagate skeptics have treated this report with derision and suspicion, suggesting it was a key tool in promoting the supposed myth of Russian electoral interference. Jerome Corsi, for example, contended with this report “the Deep State positioned the ‘Russian Collusion’ meme as its first-choice strategy for blocking Donald Trump from becoming president” (Killing the Deep State, p.22). The late Robert Parry dismissed it as a “prosecutor’s brief, albeit one that lacks any real evidence that the accused is guilty”; it presented a case that was “one-sided and lacks any actual proof” and suggested it was probably intended to “weaken and discredit Trump before he takes office” (Consortium News, Jan. 07, 2017). Jarrett dismissed the ICA report’s claims Putin held a grudge against Clinton as “nothing more than guesswork—both highly speculative and petty” (The Russia Hoax, p.89).
The fact the ICA report “does not or cannot provide evidence for its assertions” (The Atlantic), was also cited by Russiagate skeptics as reason enough to reject its claims about Russian interference. Caitlin Johnstone, for example, cast doubt on this report and other official assessments, because “none of them contain a single shred of hard evidence, raw intelligence, or testable data.” This, Johnstone lamented, was part of a general pattern:
We have been shown no proof. They refuse to show us any proof. That is extremely suspicious, and by itself is sufficient reason to be intensely skeptical of the Russiagate narrative (Medium, Jun. 06, 2017; emphasis added).
In his reading of the ICA report blogger Michael McCaffrey declared “there is absolutely zero evidence in that report of Russian hacking or tampering in the election at all. Nothing.” The “DNI authors” observed the late Professor Edward S. Herman in mid-2017, “provide no supporting evidence at all—only speculative assertions, assumptions, and guesses” (Monthly Review, 01 Jul 2017). On the day of the report’s release Glenn Greenwald asserted as “facts” that the US intelligence community “lies repeatedly and continually” and was “often wrong” (Figure 2). He later dismissed the ICA report as “farcical” and “flimsy”, noting its authors “filled half the report with old, public-source information…”
Aaron Maté wrote dismissively of “claims by US intelligence officials” there was Russian meddling, tartly observing that as of October 2017 “there has yet to be any corroboration.” It was “laughably anticlimatic”, declared Michael Tracey, the report contained “no new evidence corroborating the Government’s claims regarding ‘Russian Hacking’” (Medium, Jan. 07, 2017; original emphasis). The late Professor emeritus of Russian Studies Stephen F. Cohen, picking up on the assessment’s disclaimer, suggested its authors actually “had no ‘proof’” that any of their allegations “were a ‘fact’.”
The Russiagate skeptics also attacked the ICA report’s reliability on the grounds it was the product of a politicized assessment process. Claims were made the (still unidentified) analysts who wrote it were deliberately selected because of their willingness promote the myth of Russian interference. Michael Doran, in his lengthy examination of “The Real Collusion Story” (National Review, Mar. 13, 2018), claimed the ICA analysis was driven by then CIA Director John Brennan in a “personal campaign to force a consensus in support of Clinton’s propaganda.”2 This “propaganda” took the form of an allegation, first made on Clinton’s website on August 5, 2016, shortly after the damaging DNC hack, that Trump had both a bizarre fascination and a questionable relationship with Russia:
Doran claimed Brennan and then Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper had collaborated in this effort to validate these claims when they established (shortly after the election), “an ad hoc and highly unorthodox intelligence-assessment team.” Brennan and Clapper apparently “handpicked a small number of analysts, tasking them with reaching a consensus before the inauguration of Donald Trump.” According to Doran:
The team, no surprise, did not disappoint. In January 2017, it produced the ‘consensus’ that Brennan had been trying to orchestrate for the previous five months. By then, it was still useful as a propaganda tool against President Donald Trump, though it had arrived far too late to help Hillary Clinton win the election [emphasis added].
That these FBI, CIA and NSA analysts had been “handpicked” to smear Russia and Trump became a common theme among “Deep State coup” proponents.3 According to Ted Malloch, a Corsi collaborator and assumed at one point to be a cut-out between the Trump campaign, Roger Stone and Wikileaks, Clapper had chosen “three left-leaning analysts” to support “his already-laid plot against Trump” (The Plot to Destroy Trump, p.92). Former CIA analyst Roy McGovern observed: “as we intelligence veterans know well, if you handpick the analysts, you are handpicking the conclusions.” He continued:
For instance, put a group of analysts known for their hardline views on Russia in a room for a few weeks, prevent analysts with dissenting viewpoints from weighing in, don’t require any actual evidence, and you are pretty sure to get the Russia-bashing result that you wanted. (Consortium News, Nov. 13, 2017; emphasis added).
Another former official, Jack Matlock, the last US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, also queried this procedure:
The analysts selected would have understood what Director Clapper wanted since he made no secret of his views. Why would they endanger their careers by not delivering?
What should have struck any congressperson or reporter was that the procedure Clapper followed was the same as that used in 2003 to produce the report falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein had retained stocks of weapons of mass destruction. That should be worrisome enough to inspire questions… (JackMatlock.com, Jun. 29 2018).
The end result, Matlock observed, was a “shabby, politically motivated, report”, that was “full of assertion, innuendo, and description of ‘capabilities’ but largely devoid of any evidence to substantiate its assertions”, and was clearly designed to “block any improvement in relations with Russia.”
Russian Influence Operation:
- “[T]here were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. The first involved attempts by a Russian organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election.”
Mueller indicted the IRA, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, Concord Catering and thirteen Russian individuals on February 16, 2018 for carrying out an illegal foreign influence operation during the presidential election. Mueller claimed these defendants, “posing as US persons”, had “operated social media accounts and groups designed to attract US audiences.” They even stole the identities of real US citizens in support of their goal of “interfering with the US political system”, specifically during the 2016 election. This activity comprised “operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton”, and to also “support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”
“Deep State coup” theorists have long treated these allegations with derision; dismissing the Russian operation as both amateurish and ultimately insignificant in terms of effecting the election outcome. The Russian troll farm’s social media campaign was “pathetic” and “overblown”, argued Federalist contributor Krumholz (Federalist, Jul. 20, 2018). Focusing on the troll farm’s seemingly meagre ad-spend on Facebook, Krumholz also questioned whether “all of these ads were even run by the Russian government, or by Russians trying to make money on the Internet.”
Noting their limited reach and impact of the FaceBook ads purchased by the Russia social media campaign, Washington Examiner journalist and Russigate skeptic Byron York suggested that element of their campaign “might not be a very big deal.” Ted Malloch did not dispute there were “Russian bots and trolls”, but argued they were not involved in “an orchestrated attempt…to tip the voting scale in Trump’s favor; it was merely an attempt to create chaos and add to the white noise on an already clogged media circuit” (The Plot to Destroy Trump, p.145).
In his contribution to this narrative Aaron Maté disputed the findings contained in two reports commissioned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2018 analysing the troll farm’s activities. In his reading of the evidence, Maté concluded: “It was mostly unrelated to the 2016 election; microscopic in reach, engagement, and spending; and juvenile or absurd in its content.” Maté also suggested the Russians were “actually engaging in clickbait capitalism”, aimed at “unique demographics” all “in a bid to attract large audiences for commercial purposes” (The Nation Dec. 28, 2018).
Russian Hacking of the DNC and DCC networks, and of John Podesta’s personal email and dissemination through Wikileaks:
- “The Special Counsel found that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations publicly disseminated these materials through various intermediaries, including Wikileaks.”
The headline act of the Russian Government’s electoral interference in 2016 was its hacking of both the Democrat National Committee (DNC), and the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) servers, and later the personal email account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Claims of Russian culpability in the hacks were first made by the DNC’s cybersecurity contractor, CrowdStrike, which had investigated the compromised networks. CrowdStrike co-founder and chief technology officer Dmitri Alperovitch was quoted in the Washington Post (Jun. 14, 2016), claiming CrowdStrike had “identified two separate hacker groups, both working for the Russian government, that had infiltrated the network.” In a statement released on the same day, Alperovitch explained how CrowdStrike had detected “two sophisticated adversaries…COZY BEAR and FANCY BEAR” on the DNC network. He added:
Both adversaries engage in extensive political and economic espionage for the benefit of the government of the Russian Federation and are believed to be closely linked to the Russian government’s powerful and highly capable intelligence services (emphasis added).
CrowdStrike’s claims were officially confirmed a few months later in a joint statement from Clapper and the Department of Homeland Security October 7, 2016:
The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process [emphases added].
There were further leaks to the media about the intelligence community’s views that Russian intelligence was not only directly responsible for the hacking and release of the Democrat documents, but did so with the explicit intention of damaging Clinton’s campaign and helping Trump.4 That this was the intelligence community’s view was confirmed with the release of the ICA report in January 2017, which found that:
In July 2015, Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016.
- The General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) probably began cyber operations aimed at the US election by March 2016. We assess that the GRU operations resulted in the compromise of the personal e-mail accounts of Democratic Party officials and political figures. By May, the GRU had exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC (ICA, p.2; emphasis added).
On July 13, 2018 Mueller indicted a dozen officers from the GRU for hacking into the DNC and DCC networks and stealing documents. Using the fake personas “DC Leaks” and “Guccifer 2.0”, according to the indictment, the GRU operatives had “staged and released tens of thousands of the stolen emails and documents.” A significant part of this document release by the GRU was via Wikileaks. Mueller’s indictment did not mention Wikileaks by name, granting it the anonymity of “Organization 1”, but nevertheless alleged that the GRU hackers had “transferred many of the documents they stole…to Organization 1” (Netyksho Indictment, p.17). The ICA report had been less restrained in making this link:
We assess with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks. [ICA, p.3]
None of these of allegations are regarded as credible by “Deep State coup” theorists. Trump, of course, already had form for disputing that Russia was behind the hacking. “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody sitting in a bed some place,” Trump said in December 2016 in response to reported claims by “CIA officials” that “Russian hackers were trying to help Trump.” On January 6, 2017, for example, he repeatedly questioned the finding that Russia was behind it arguing that the FBI’s failure to gain direct access to the DNC servers called into question claims of Russian culpability:
“Deep State coup” theorists had been disputing the Russian hacking allegations since 2016, deploying two main lines of attack. The first was to reject the US intelligence community’s claims on the grounds they had a history of lying and they had failed to provide any evidence. The second line of attack was to suggest there was actually an elaborate “Deep State” conspiracy involving Crowdstrike, the FBI and US intelligence agencies, to falsely blame Russia, in a bid to hide the fact the hacking was actually an “inside job”.
One of the leading voices in the former camp was Glenn Greenwald, who in a co-authored article in October 2016 that used “internal strategy documents and emails” from the Clinton campaign provided directly to The Intercept “by a source identifying himself as Guccifer 2.0”, cast doubt on claims from Obama Administration officials that Russian officials were behind the hack, noting “they provided no evidence for that assertion.” In a subsequent article, referring to reports in the Washington Post and New York Times, sourced to “anonymous officials”, that the CIA and other US intelligence agencies had attributed the hack to Russia, Greenwald had again emphasised the need for “actual evidence” for the hack:
Anonymous claims leaked to newspapers about what the CIA believes do not constitute proof, and certainly do not constitute reliable evidence that substitutes for actual evidence that can be reviewed.
Greenwald also attacked the CIA and other US intelligence officials, calling into question both their trustworthiness and their ability to identify the hackers:
Many of those incidents demonstrate, as hurtful as it is to accept, that these agencies even lie when there’s a Democrat overseeing the executive branch. Even in those cases when they are not deliberately lying, they are often gravely mistaken. Intelligence is not a science, and attributing hacks to specific sources is a particularly difficult task, almost impossible to carry out with precision and certainty [emphasis added].
Greenwald’s skepticism was carefully hedged, though, with acknowledgements it was “plausible” and “possible” that “Russia might have done this.” But otherwise Greenwald set a very high bar for what he would accept as evidence, and frequently highlighted how little, if any of these claims would meet his apparently exacting standards (Figure 3). Not even Mueller’s indictment of the GRU hackers was sufficient to completely sway Greenwald, which he initially dismissed as “evidence free assertions.” Mueller’s team, he argued, knew they would never see the alleged GRU hackers in court, so they were “free to make claims they’d never have to prove.” It was only later he performed a partial backtrack, admitting to the Observer (Dec. 20, 2018), for example, the GRU indictment was indeed “some evidence, not conclusive, but at least some evidence finally that the Russians are involved, but that doesn’t say the extent to which Putin was involved…”5
A number of Greenwald’s fellow travellers also joined the fray. Aaron Maté, for instance, remained unconvinced by Mueller’s indictment and raised numerous objections to reports of Russian hacking (Figure 4). In November 2017, referring to the ICA report, Maté declared there was “actually no ‘intelligence community’s consensus’ that Russia hacked DNC, just the assessment of hand-picked analysts from 4 (out of 17) agencies.” In mid-2018 he argued the reasons to be skeptical of CrowdStrike’s assessment—as set out by Marcy Wheeler in January 2017 (Wheeler had been Maté’s ideological ally and frequent guest on his program, now they routinely insult each other)—remained “valid.”
Maté even took issue with a sensitive NSA document leaked to The Intercept (resulting in the imprisonment of the leaker, Reality Winner), which reportedly assessed that GRU associated “actors” had “executed cyber espionage operations” against a US company and a “spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.” Maté argued the Intercept’s article was “full of holes”, “reckless”, “based on a gaping misinterpretation” and “hollow” as the NSA document “proves nothing.” “I think the headline should have been the NSA itself is unsure of the evidence about Russia hacking the elections,” he later argued (Real News Network, Sep. 04, 2018).6
As for Mueller’s indictment, Maté argued on the Real News Network in 2018, it “doesn’t contain any evidence showing that it actually is Russian military intelligence.” Although Maté conceded it was “quite possible” the DNC “was hacked”, he was “not convinced” the culprit was the “Russian government.” Instead, Maté repeatedly suggested the intelligence information implicating Russia was either incorrect or falsified. It could have been “someone” trying to “sloppily impersonate Russian military intelligence” he speculated; before later making the accusation that “whoever supplied the intelligence…has fueled this thing from the beginning.” Speaking to The Intercept (Mar. 06, 2019) ahead of the release of the Mueller Report, Maté again insisted on the need to see the “underlying evidence” and claimed it was “possible that Mueller was given faulty intelligence here.”
The other line of attack, that it was actually a Deep State plot cover-up an internal leak, was developed by various former intelligence officials and amateur analysts. In July 2017 Elizabeth Vos reported in Disobedient Media about the findings of an analyst known only as The Forensicator the files published by Guccifer 2.0 were “almost certainly not accessed initially by a remote hacker, much less one in Russia.” “If true,” observed Vos, “this analysis obliterates the Russian hacking narrative completely.” According to Vos:
The Forensicator concluded that the chance that the files had been accessed and downloaded remotely over the internet were too small to give this idea any serious consideration. He explained that the calculated transfer speeds for the initial copy were much faster than can be supported by an internet connection. This is extremely significant and completely discredits allegations of Russian hacking made by both Guccifer 2.0 and CrowdStrike.
The group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), comprising retired and former US intelligence officials, also rejected the official account, presenting their assessment in a series of public “memorandums” to President Trump. The first of these appeared on Consortium News (Jul. 24, 2017), with this headline finding:
Forensic studies of “Russian hacking” into Democratic National Committee computers last year reveal that on July 5, 2016, data was leaked (not hacked) by a person with physical access to DNC computer. After examining metadata from the “Guccifer 2.0” July 5, 2016 intrusion into the DNC server, independent cyber investigators have concluded that an insider copied DNC data onto an external storage device [emphasis in original].
In a follow-up article in The Nation (Aug. 09, 2017), VIPS elaborated on their assessment:
There was no hack of the Democratic National Committee’s system on July 5 last year—not by the Russians, not by anyone else. Hard science now demonstrates it was a leak—a download executed locally with a memory key or a similarly portable data-storage device. In short, it was an inside job by someone with access to the DNC’s system. This casts serious doubt on the initial “hack,” as alleged, that led to the very consequential publication of a large store of documents on WikiLeaks last summer [emphasis added].
The official narrative was also repeatedly attacked by British programmer Tim Leonard, initially under his non-de-plume of “Adam Carter”, who promoted the theory CrowdStrike had invented the Guccifer 2.0 persona. CrowdStrike’s objective, he suggested, was to use Guccifer 2.0 to “provide false corroboration for the claims of CrowdStrike executives whom had already admitted that they lacked hard evidence” that Russia was responsible. Leonard also argued there was “no proof” Russia was behind the hacks, noting that the FBI had been denied direct access to the DNC server, and that CrowdStrike on this and other matters had clearly “lied and are covering something up.”
These accounts helped fuel the counter-narrative (Figure 5), most of it focused on the alleged deceit and duplicity of CrowdStrike, that the hack was actually an internal leak. Film director Oliver Stone, for instance, declared claims of Russian involvement in the hack were a “great fiction” and cited the opinion of unnamed intelligence experts it was “probably an inside job.” In his first Russiagate book, Killing the Deep State, Jerome Corsi described the VIPS memo as the “most convincing evidence that the Russians were not involved” in the hack (p.93). Caitlin Johnstone had also seized on the VIPS report, noting their contention it was “physically impossible” for the alleged hacker to have downloaded the files from offshore in the alleged timeframe had ominous implications:
If this is true, it means it was a leak from an insider as many have contended, not a hack at all. Even more damning, they’ve found evidence that the metadata for the Guccifer 2.0 files was deliberately “Russianified” with fake Russian hacking fingerprints. Russia was framed (Medium, Aug. 11, 2017; emphasis added).
CrowdStrike’s integrity was also attacked. Writing in Consortium News (May 11, 2017) journalist Daniel Lazare dismissed the alleged Russian hack as “based on purest speculation”, noting that “for as-yet-unexplained reasons, the DNC refused to grant it access to its servers” to the FBI; instead the “only evidence that a break-in even occurred” came from CrowdStrike. Lazare declared CrowdStrike to be “highly suspect”, noting that its chief technology officer Dmitri Alperovitch was not only “a Russian émigré with a pronounced anti-Putin tilt” but he was “an associate of a virulently anti-Russian outfit known as the Atlantic Council” which was funded by a “variety of individuals and groups that have an interest in isolating or discrediting Russia.” Lazare suggested an obvious conclusion:
Since the Atlantic Council is also a long-time supporter of Hillary Clinton, this means that the Clinton campaign relied on a friendly anti-Putin cyber-sleuth to tell it what everyone involved wanted to hear, i.e. that the Kremlin was at the bottom of it all. If this strikes you as fishy, it should.
This narrative of a “suspect” CrowdStrike was taken up by others. Andrew Roberge on Progressive Army (Jun. 02, 2017), for example, in a piece suggesting that Russian attribution was a “false flag”, cited Lazare’s account to portray CrowdStrike as a nefarious and untrustworthy company, that was coincidentally “the only link that exists that is pointing the finger at Russia.” Michael Tracey thought it sinister CrowdStrike was working for DNC while at the same time it “was also under contract with the FBI for unspecified technical services.” Tracey also took issue with NBC anchor Megyn Kelly’s description of CrowdStrike as “non-partisan”, arguing that its close “fiduciary relationship with the DNC” suggested otherwise (Medium, Jun. 08, 2017).
In Spygate, Bongino and McAllister implied there was something sinister in CrowdStrike’s links to “ambitious Clinton supporter” and former Alphabet Inc. CEO Eric Schmidt. They also explored the Alperovitch-Atlantic Council link, noting that sitting on the Council’s international advisory board was one Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk (pp.66-67) whom they had denounced as being intimately involved in a series of Ukrainian-based efforts to undermine Trump. They also suggested the FBI was too reliant on CrowdStrike:
Was it the Russian government? We don’t know because only CrowdStrike examined the computers. The FBI was left out in the cold, and the US government investigators were reliant on CrowdStrike’s conclusions (Spygate, p.67).
Michael Thau, writing for the pro-Trump American Greatness (Jul. 13, 2018) website, queried “why the FBI accepted the word of CrowdStrike, a private contractor hired by the DNC, without any independent confirmation.” Thau promoted Leonard/Carter’s theory that “CrowdStrike engaged in a disinformation campaign, inventing not just a fake Russian hack but also a fake hacker called ‘Guccifer 2.0’.” This was apparently part of an elaborate damage control strategy, after the DNC had supposedly learned “almost immediately” in March 2016 (putting it ahead of other accounts that Podesta and the DNC did not suspect it until August 2016), that Podesta’s email account had been hacked, “to taint the damaging information in Podesta’s emails with Russian perfidy.” According to Thau, the “only evidence” of Russian culpability was Guccifer 2.0’s public blog and “CrowdStrike’s unverified examination” of the DNC server.
Having rejected the official narrative of Russian hacking, many “Deep State coup” theorists turned to a more explosive theory, in which the leaker, and Wikileaks real source, was in fact DNC worker Seth Rich, who had probably been murdered (presumably by agents working for Clinton) because of his central role in the leak.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange had repeatedly denied Russia was the source of the hacked materials. In July 2016 Assange told NBC there was “no proof of that whatsoever” when it came to Russian involvement, dismissing it as a “diversion pushed by the Hillary Clinton campaign.” Speaking to Fox’s Sean Hannity on January 3, 2017, Assange reaffirmed Wikileaks source “is not the Russian government and it is not a state party.” Assange had also been instrumental in promoting the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, starting with a cryptic reference to Rich’s murder, in the context of risks taken by Wikileaks sources, in an interview with Netherlands public broadcast service on August 9, 2016. Wikileaks also offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to information on his killing, though with this caveat: “This should not be taken to imply that Seth Rich was a source to WikiLeaks or that his murder is connected to our publications.” Of course…
Republican dirty trickster and Trump confidante Roger Stone also played an integral role in promoting the Seth Rich narrative (Figure 6). In his book on his role in Trump’s election, for example, Stone had claimed that contrary to the “Clintonite” narrative of blaming Russia for the hacking, “multiple sources” had come forward indicating:
[T]he material had been leaked, not hacked online, and had been supplied to Wikileaks by a disgruntled democrat national committee staffer who was disgusted by the way they were bending the rules to screw Bernie Sanders. I believe that person to be Seth Rich, who shortly thereafter took 5 slugs to the back (The Making of the President 2016, p.130; emphasis added).
In a three-part article for Infowars, Stone’s collaborator, Jerome Corsi, determined that Seth Rich, apparently motivated by his disgust with the DNC’s treatment of Senator Bernie Sanders during the primaries, was the “likely perpetuator” of the leaked emails. In subsequent articles he accused the FBI of altering documents and suppressing a surveillance video in an elaborate effort to support the cover story Rich was the victim of an opportunistic crime.
The Seth Rich theory also attracted high profile support from such pro-Trump luminaries as Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity. On Fox and Friends in May 2017, Gingrich referred to the “strange story” of Seth Rich who had been “disgusted by the corruption” of the DNC, and had subsequently been “assassinated at four in the morning having given WikiLeaks…53,000 – emails and 17,000 attachments” (Guardian, May 22, 2017). On May 16, 2017, Hannity boasted of a “very huge bombshell story” and “explosive developments” that could “completely shatter” both the collusion narrative and claims “Wikileaks was working with the Russians.” Hannity breathlessly reported how Seth Rich “was, in fact, communicating with Wikileaks before he was gunned down in Washington, D.C.” A few days later, facing outrage from Rich’s family, Fox retracted its story promoting the conspiracy theory, but Hannity remained unrepentant, insisting he had a “moral obligation” to ask if there was “a whistleblower within the DNC, a truth-teller, that actually was the source for Wikileaks, and not Russia working with the Trump campaign.”
Also adding his voice to the Seth Rich narrative was Adam Carter, who argued in late 2017:
the premise that Seth Rich could have been murdered for reasons relating to him being a whistle-blower has actually become less bizarre than the premise that Guccifer 2.0 was a genuine Russian hacker.
The theory that Seth was killed for such a reason is far from exclusively held by the right-wing. Many progressives also want answers on this topic.
In 2016 Caitlin Johnstone had praised Seth Rich as “one of greatest heroes and patriots in American history.” She claimed the “most plausible explanation for the DNC leaks” is that “Seth Rich was involved” and after he had passed on the DNC documents, he had been “assassinated for crossing powerful people” (Newslogue, Dec. 18, 2016). “My theory”, she explained five months later, “is that Seth Rich was not just assassinated because he was the DNC leaker. I think he was assassinated because he knew he was the DNC leaker (Medium, May 21, 2017). The “American deep state”, she wrote in one of her last pieces on the topic,7 “wants you to shut up about Seth Rich is because it is devastating to the Russiagate narrative they’ve been pumping all their energy into since the November election.”
Outreach to Trump Campaign from Russian Cut-Outs:
- “…multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”
Perhaps the most contentious part of the collusion narrative, outside of the hacking, were the reported contacts between the Trump Campaign and various Russian officials, businessmen and other Russian-associated cut-outs. By the time the Mueller Report had been released, a total of 272 contacts had been identified, including 38 meetings between Trump campaign advisors and surrogates with a variety of Russian officials, private individuals, and other foreigners with Russian connections. Contacts the Trump campaign had previously and explicitly denied (part of a general pattern of dissembling and deception).
Of particular interest to both the Mueller investigation and “Collusion Truthers” (ahead of Mueller’s findings going public) was the Papadopoulos-Mifsud Affair (which launched the FBI Crossfire Hurricane investigation), and the Trump Tower Meeting as both involved offers made to the Trump campaign of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton allegedly acquired by the Russian Government. Dismissing these stories, “Deep State coup” theorists have claimed each of these offers were in fact elaborate “Deep State” plots, specifically “false flag” operations, aimed at entrapping Trump’s campaign team.
The Coffee Boy & the Professor: On April 26, 2016, while in London, Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopolous was told by Maltese Professor and suspected Russian cut-out, Joseph Misfud, the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, in the form of “thousands of emails” which they were interested in sharing with the Trump campaign. This information Papadopoulos inexplicably divulged to Australia’s High Commissioner to Britain, Alexander Downer. It was Downer’s subsequent report to American officials, after the hacked DNC emails were released, that led to the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation. Papadopoulos was later indicted by Mueller for lying and obstructing the investigation.
In the Russian Collusion narrative, Mifsud is a “cut-out”, dispatched by his Russian handlers to test the Trump campaign’s interest in receiving Russian assistance by targeting one of its less-experienced foreign policy advisors with the promise of the hacked emails (which were delivered via Wikileaks). For the “Deep State coup” theorists, however, a far more complex and improbable story is offered where Mifsud is in fact an agent of Western intelligence agencies and the Clinton campaign, as is Downer, both of whom were witting agents in an elaborate sting operation aimed at smearing the Trump campaign. This plot apparently served to both provide a confected basis to initiate the FBI investigation and to conceal role of the Steele Dossier in launching that same investigation.
Greg Jarrett, for example, sympathetically portrayed Papadopoulos as just a “young volunteer” who had told his story about the “rumored Clinton emails and supposed Russian contacts” during a night of “heavy drinking” with Downer. There “appears to be no known evidence”, Jarrett observed, that Papadopoulos had “passed this information along to the campaign”; nevertheless this “quadruple hearsay” precipitated the FBI’s investigation (The Russia Hoax, p.115). Papadopoulos’s reported dealings with some Russians were “neither illegal nor improper”, argued Jarrett (ibid, p.116).
Jarrett, though, was unconvinced the “Papadopoulos conversations” were the true impetus for the investigation. Instead he pursued the theory that Downer’s message to the FBI was actually a cover story, conveniently revealed in the New York Times at a time when the FBI was “under intense pressure” to justify its investigation into Trump. In short, the Papadopoulos-Mifsud affair worked as a distraction from the Steele Dossier:
If the probe was opened based on an unverified “dossier” about Trump that was paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, then the investigation itself was highly suspect (The Russia Hoax, p.115).
In his judgement the reported conversations between Mifsud and Papadopoulos, were in some way part of the plot to damage Trump:
At best, they served as a propitious pretext for an illegitimate probe. At worst, they were employed as a contrived cover for a politically motivated inquisition by the FBI designed to harm Trump and in campaign or the White House, if elected (ibid, p.116).
Another, more sinister claim was that Mifsud was actually an agent of Western intelligence agencies, again out to destroy Trump. Elizabeth Vos on Disobedient Media (Apr. 14, 2018) presented evidence to suggest that rather than being a Russian cut-out, Mifsud “may have actually worked for British intelligence.” This formed part of a larger plot where “UK intelligence services fabricated evidence of collusion in order to create the appearance of a Trump-Russia connection.” Vos later spoke with British “political analyst” Chris Blackburn, whose Twitter posts had inspired her research, for additional insights. Blackburn declared: “There are enough red flags here to suggest that Mifsud was potentially tied to efforts to kick-start a phony investigation that was designed to be leaked to the American press.”
This theory found plenty of other proponents. Former Trump campaign officials Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, for example, claimed that Papadopoulos’ meeting with Downer “was actually set up by the global intelligence community” in a bid to “connect the Trump campaign with Russia” (Trump’s Enemies, pp.52-53). Lee Smith, writing for Real Clear Investigations (May 30, 2018), disputed Mifsud’s alleged Russian links, claiming instead that he “may…have actually been working for Western intelligence agencies.” Mifsud’s “closest public ties are to Western governments, politicians and institutions, including the CIA, FBI and British intelligences services”; in addition, he was “tied to the Clintons.” Smith also reported on Republican speculation “that Mifsud may have been part of a sting operation designed to open an FBI investigation on the Trump campaign.” Margot Cleveland, after studying the Carter Page FISA applications, queried if Mifsud was in fact “an FBI informant or an asset of a foreign government” (Federalist, Aug. 02, 2018).
In a similar vein, Bongino and McAllister, suggested that Papadopoulos was the victim of a plot by foreigners working for the Clintons. Mifsud was a “left-leaning donor to the Clinton Foundation with a close friend who went out of his way to support Clinton” (Spygate, p.34) and they cited the work of Smith and Blackburn to assert “there’s simply no evidence that [Mifsud] was a Russian spy” (p.29). They also decided to “follow the dots” on Downer, who was revealed as being “[l]ike Hillary Clinton” as he had been “instrumental” in making a deal that “transferred” Australian uranium to Russia. He had also played a “central role” in the granting Australian government funds to the Clinton Foundation (ibid, p.41) and had sat on the board of a “secretive firm with ties to the Clinton campaign” (ibid, p.44).
In his book Deep State Target, released in March 2019, Papadopoulos confirmed that Mifsud had told him the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” (ibid, p.60). But Papadopoulos also repeated allegations about Mifsud’s “allegiances to Western intelligence”, prompting him to ask the following rhetorical question:
Was Mifsud working for those intelligence agencies when he fed me the line about Russia and Clinton’s emails? I believe so (p.212; emphasis added).
He also believed that Mifsud “was either a CIA or MI6 operative” (p.215), and tied him into an elaborate plot where an “Obama-loving Israeli diplomat” engineered his meeting with Downer “a man who works with current and former intelligence operatives on a daily basis and sits on the board of one of the largest private intelligence firms in the world” (p.213). Writing in the Wall Street Journal (Apr. 18, 2019), Papadopoulos accused Mifsud, Downer and “their government backers” of “acting in concert to inflict damage on a U.S. presidential candidate whose views apparently scared the hell out of them.”
Intrigue on Floor 26: On June 9, 2016, Donald Trump Jr, Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and four other individuals, including British music publicist Rob Goldstone and former Russian spy turned lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin, in Trump Tower in New York. It was Goldstone who had emailed Trump Jr on June 3 with the promise they would receive “official documents and information” that would “incriminate” Clinton that were part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump.” The existence of this meeting only came to light through reporting by the New York Times (Jul. 08, 2017), after it had looked into Kushner’s belated disclosure (as part of security clearance process) that he had met with Veselnitskaya (New York Times, Jul. 11, 2017). Further disclosures about the meeting were marred by inconsistent and deceptive accounts from the meeting participants, and intervention from President Trump himself to shape the narrative.
“Deep State coup” theorists, however, contend the Trump Tower meeting was a set-up designed to validate the Steele Dossier. Driving this theory was the discovery that Veselnitskaya had met with Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson before and after the Trump Tower meeting and had even used some of their briefing materials. Lee Smith, for example, claimed there was a “growing body of evidence” the meeting “may have been a set-up—part of a broad effort to tarnish the Trump campaign…” Smith suggested it had been a “sting operation, engineered by Simpson” with assistance from the FBI. For good measure he cited the opinion of an anonymous “congressional investigator” the meeting’s purpose “was to substantiate the Clinton-funded dossier alleging that Trump was taking dirt on his rivals from the Russians” (RCI, Aug. 13, 2018).
Portraying Fusion GPS as a “shadowy group that has acted as an arm of the Kremlin seeking to interfere in U.S. politics and elections”, Krumholz in the Federalist (Jul. 30, 2018) highlighted a seemingly nefarious set of connections:
The Democrats hired Fusion GPS to find ties between Trump and Russia, primarily by means of a dossier sourced by Russians tied to the Kremlin…. At the same time Fusion GPS was working for the Democrats, Fusion GPS was working for the Kremlin, and with the Russians that showed up at that Trump Tower meeting.
Another Federalist contributor, Adam Mill, also described the meeting as a case of “entrapment” involving “Russian actors…cast from Fusion GPS’ rolodex.” In another article Mill castigated the media for downplaying or ignoring the Fusion GPS link to the meeting, and suggested their silence “presents the nearly inescapable inference that Fusion GPS set up the Trump Tower meeting to frame the Russia collusion story.” In Spygate, Bongino and McAllister engaged in similar speculation, portraying Simpson as the mastermind behind the meeting, who knew that Trump Jr’s participation “would look bad for the Trump team—the perfect scenario to bolster a fake dossier” (p.56). They even speculated that Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin may have been “instructed by Fusion GPS” to meet with the Trump campaign “to advance the ‘collusion narrative’” (p.60).
The absurdities of such theorizing are legion: we are expected to believe that Fusion GPS somehow convinced one if its clients (only Veselnitskaya was a client, Akhmetshin was not), to engage in some subterfuge to benefit one its other clients, in the form of a “fake” meeting with the Trump campaign to fit the “collusion” narrative of a dossier that as of June 9, 2016 had yet to be written.8 Inexplicably, the Trump Tower meeting was never mentioned in the much-maligned Steele Dossier, let alone during the 2016 campaign when it could have been far more politically damaging, indeed it did not become publicly known until a year later.
One of the conceits of some “Deep State coup” theorists, whether avowedly pro-Trump, or the more ideologically ambiguous “anti-anti-Trump” Russiagate skeptics, is that proponents of the Russia collusion theory are engaging in a Democrat-sanctioned version of QAnon.9 This “QAnon for the left” or “Coastal QAnon” (Figure 7), apparently shares the same features as QAnon of apparently finding deeper and sinister, yet patently absurd, meaning in the most obscure clues in service of a master narrative of a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign to steal the 2016 presidential election. That the “Deep State coup” theorists are arguably in the thrall of a far more serious conspiratorial fantasy involving increasingly complex and diabolical machinations by various secret operatives and clandestine agencies to supposedly fabricate evidence and to entrap both Trump and some of his campaign officials and other supporters, does not seem to have entered their self-awareness.
Nevertheless, it is indisputable that even before Mueller’s Report had even been released, its main findings (as summarized in Barr’s controversial letter), confirming Russian interference, hacking and outreach by cut-outs to the Trump campaign, conflicted with the increasingly complex alternative narrative of a well-planned “Deep State” conspiracy against Trump. This put the “Deep State coup” theorists on an inevitable collision course with the Mueller Report when it was finally made available to the public on April 18, 2019.
To be continued in Part 3.
1 Obviously feeding the narrative of the Deep State seeking to undermine Trump by contradicting his stance, shortly after the first debate NBC News (Oct. 11, 2016) reported that according to a “senior U.S. intelligence official” the Trump and Clinton campaigns, including “both candidates, surrogates and leadership”, had been briefed by the US intelligence community about “cybersecurity and the Russian government’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.” After the election NBC News (Dec. 17, 2017) again reported that in the weeks after becoming the Republican nominee, Trump had been “warned that foreign adversaries, including Russia, would probably try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign.” The anonymous “multiple government officials” claimed the “high-level counterintelligence briefing” was provided by “senior FBI officials.” In 2017 the FBI confirmed in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that in August 2016 it had provided “a counterintelligence defensive briefing to then-candidate Donald Trump and other senior campaign officials.” The FBI declined to detail the nature of the threats described in the briefing.
2 Doran’s account, published in the previously “NeverTrump” National Review, embraced, amplified and attempted to validate many of the key themes of “Deep State coup” theory. Doran, currently a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and who had served as a senior director of the National Security Council in the administration of George W. Bush, alleged that Clinton’s supporters in their effort to “block Trump” had “bent rules and broke laws.” As anticipated, his account engages in the usual lapses of logic, where a campaign by the FBI and the Democrats to damage Trump’s electoral chances with the Russia collusion narrative, apparently centred on the Steele Dossier, is delivered in breathless detail, even though the Dossier did not fully emerge in the public until after the election and was not the predicate for the FBI investigation. Remarkably, Doran acknowledges the damage to Clinton’s campaign caused by the Russian hacking operation, but he avoids most of the key data points in the Russian collusion narrative, remained fixated on the Steele Dossier, which he identifies as the sole driver of the entire collusion narrative and Mueller’s investigation.
3 According to former DNI James Clapper’s recent memoir, it was Obama, during a National Security Council meeting on December 5, 2016, who had directed the CIA, FBI and NSA “to integrate all their intelligence into a single report to pass on to the next administration and Congress.” There was also to be an unclassified version for public consumption. Clapper reports how he, Brennan, NSA Director Mike Rogers, and FBI Director James Comey agreed to this effort, creating a 30-strong team drawn from all three agencies of the “most seasoned people” who would “produce as thorough a community assessment as possible” (Clapper, Facts and Fears, p.382). The fixation on the word “hand-picked” was largely Clapper’s fault. He used the word in testimony before a Senate Committee on May 18, 2017 when he described how the “two-dozen analysts for this task were hand-picked, seasoned experts from each of the agencies” (Clapper Testimony, p.3; emphasis added).
4 See Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima & Greg Miller, “Secret CIA Assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win the White House”, Washington Post, Dec. 09, 2016; and David E. Sanger & Scott Shane, “Russian Hackers Acted to Aid Trump in the Election, U.S. Says”, New York Times, Dec. 09, 2016.
the first instance of actual evidence being presented to substantiate the allegation that the Russian government was involved in the hacking. It still obviously isn’t evidence that Putin ordered it, nor is it proof that the Russian government did it. There are still lots of questions I have about how it’s linked to GRU, and how reliable the attribution evidence is… But yes, because of the level of specificity, I do regard the indictment as evidence (emphasis added).
6 Writing in The Nation (Oct. 29, 2018) Maté argued The Intercept had “failed to note” the NSA document “doesn’t even accuse the Russian Government with certainty.” Maté seemed to believe he had found significant and disqualifying caveats in the NSA report undermining the credibility of its finding of Russian responsibility for the spear-phishing. NSA’s assessment, Maté argued, is “not an attribution based on ‘Confirmed Information’, the document disclaims, but instead on ‘Analysis Judgement’ (sic) and even less convincing ‘Contextual Information’.” Revisiting the issue recently, in the context of why Greenwald and others were calling on Trump to pardon Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, but not Reality Winner, Maté again accused The Intercept of “egregious journalistic malpractice” for failing properly analyse the NSA document. According to Maté: “they completely ignored that the leaked NSA doc disclaimed that attribution to Russian is not based on ‘Confirmed Information,’ but on an ‘Analyst Judgement’.”
7 After her flurry of activity in May 2017 Johnstone wrote only two more articles that year on Seth Rich. And despite her advice to readers to “keep talking about it” because “[o]ur lives may literally depend on it”, Johnstone has not written a single article devoted to Seth Rich since her last piece in August 2017.
8 Although Fusion GPS had been engaged by the Democrats (through its law firm Perkins Coie) to continue with its oppositional research on Trump (previously carried out for the Washington Free Beacon and Republican donor Paul Singer) since April 2016, Orbis Business Intelligence, Christopher Steele’s firm, was not engaged until “mid-May” 2016, according to the book Crime In Progress, by Fusion GPS co-founders Simpson and Peter Fritsch (p.69). They also claimed the Trump Tower meeting would “remain unknown to Fusion” until news broke in the press in July 2017 (p.71), and that “neither Veselnitskaya nor Akhmetshin ever mentioned to Simpson that they had sandwiched an encounter with the brain trust of the Trump campaign between that New York court date and their D.C. dinner” (p.72). They also claimed “Fusion never did a dollar’s worth of business with Akhmetshin, and no one ever asked Fusion to conduct research for him” (p.74). Later in their narrative, Simpson speculates on whether the meeting was a Russian “chicken feed” operation aimed at determining how receptive Trump Jr might be to a “more substantial relationship”, as well as providing blackmail material. The thought that Veselnitskaya was “playing a game of chess on another level” apparently “made the Fusion partners sick” (p.200). They also note that Steele did not write his first memo until the day of the Brexit vote in the UK, on June 23, 2016 (p.75).
9 A favorite theme of the ostensibly left-wing or “progressive” anti-anti-Trumper is to claim the apparently unrelenting focus on RussiaGate by the Democrats and their media allies has been a political failure. Michael Tracey, for instance, writing soon after the release of Barr’s letter, accused Democrats of having “strengthened [Trump’s] hand immeasurably” through their unrelenting focus on the “now-discredited Russia collusion theory.” Moreover, they had “ceded to Trump the authority to opine justifiably about the wrongdoings of what he calls the ‘Deep State’—a cadre of nefarious bureaucratic actors hellbent on undermining him” (Fortune, Mar. 29, 2019). The credibility of such criticisms—that “Collusion Truthers” were helping Trump—is undermined by the actions of these same supposed anti-Trump RussiaGate skeptics who not only devoted most of their output to attacking the RussiaGate narrative rather than attacking Trump, but often appeared on the pro-Trump media as expert analysts from the left to validate Trump’s narrative of being a “Deep State” victim.
Glenn Greenwald, for example, has written remarkably few articles criticizing Trump, compared to the hundreds he produced castigating the Obama Administration. But in The Intercept—Greenwald is one of its “three co-founding editors”—he wrote at least 17 articles focusing on instances of media malpractice in its reporting on the RussiaGate affair, and two articles in 2017 claiming the Deep State was engaged in “open warfare” against Trump. He also made frequent appearances on Tucker Carlson’s show on the pro-Turmp Fox network to attack media reporting. As early as 2017 his efforts were recognized with neo-conservative pro-Trumper and “Deep State coup” theorist Lee Smith calling for Greenwald to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts to expose how the “American press became a woozy facsimile of Pravda” in their reporting on RussiaGate (The Tablet, Dec. 13, 2017). Greenwald, in turn, has repeatedly heaped praise on those “right wing” pro-Trump media and journalists who had disputed the Russigate narrative for their “great digging & reporting.” He provocatively congratulated a number of avowedly pro-Trump media outlets: Breitbart for its “editorial independence”; Fox News and the Daily Caller for doing “some of the strongest reporting on Russia” (Daily Caller, Jan. 27, 2020); and more recently declared that Mollie Hemingway (Federalist) and Chuck Ross (Daily Caller) were “more reliable than CIA mouthpieces at CNN/MSNBC & WashPost.”
Aaron Maté is another example. Out of the 33 articles he has written to date for The Nation, 24 dealt directly with RussiaGate. He also conducted numerous RussiaGate interviews for the Real News Network and continues with similar content for Grayzone. Maté also made the cross-over to the pro-Trump conservative media, writing a total of nine articles for Real Clear Investigations (RCI), of which eight attacked the Mueller probe. RCI is part of Real Clear Politics, which through its Real Clear Foundation has long been funded by “right-wing megadonors.” In addition, Maté has made a number of appearances on Tucker Carlson to contest the RussiaGate narrative. Maté’s efforts have been cited favorably by conservative RussiaGate skeptics, such as Eli Lake, and by pro-Trump publications: Breitbart, the Federalist, and American Greatness.
Whether such efforts truly helped supposedly Russiagate-bedazzled Democrats see the error of their ways is debatable, however, it is surely indisputable that having such prominent progressive voices support the “Deep State coup” narrative has helped Trump. We can see this in Federalist Senior Editor Mollie Hemingway’s recent praise for Greenwald, Tracey, Maté and Taibbi for their “journalistic integrity.” They had “managed to buck in-group journalistic and political pressure to report accurately about the political scandal”, she claimed. The cause behind Hemingway’s bombast was to contrast their apparently virtuous efforts to uphold the “Deep State coup” theory from the left with the mainstream media’s failure to get on board and uncritically accept Trump’s ill-defined “OBAMAGATE” allegations (Federalist, May 20, 2020). A helping hand indeed.