By Drew Holden
The Russian collusion hoax has fallen apart more every day. And we haven’t heard a word of comment from any of the people responsible for pushing it and helping fracture this country.
A year ago, the story dominating headlines was the allegation that President Donald Trump had colluded with the Russian government to win the 2016 election. The idea of impeaching President Trump due to these allegations was gathering steam, with accusations from elected officials and beyond that the president of the United States was a Russian puppet, a Manchurian candidate installed by Vladimir Putin, and even an agent of a hostile foreign power for the last 30 years.
You don’t need to be a fan of Trump to be outraged about the Russian collusion conspiracy. But it’s a mark against your patriotism, your judgement, or your intellect if you aren’t. Beyond just being perhaps the most defining political scandal of our time, the hoax gets under my skin because I fell for it. And I’m enormously angry for having been duped.
Now that this narrative has been proven false and possibly influenced by actual Russian disinformation, it is time to revisit how it was created and dominated U.S. politics for so long, as well as demand justice for its perpetrators.
The “Russian collusion” narrative first got its start shortly before the 2016 election, when John Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign, told reporters about an FBI investigation into the Trump campaign and suggested Trump was either “willfully ignoring” intelligence officials’ warnings or acting “as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”
This accusation eventually became a central pillar of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign. She pushed the claim on social media, including never-verified allegations about a server connected to future President Trump that was supposedly tied to Russia, and called on the FBI to release information about any connection between Trump and Russia.
Her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, suggested Trump was a Russian puppet two weeks before the election. Even the FBI’s own findings from late October, announcing that, despite a months-long investigation, they found no clear links between Trump and the Russian government, couldn’t throw any cold water on the allegations.
Especially after the election, the narrative was picked up by congressional Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on the FBI to “investigate the financial, political and personal ties” between Trump and Russia. Rep. Adam Schiff, who went on to quarterback the impeachment effort, suggested multiple, unverified claims: that the Trump campaign directed efforts from WikiLeaks, that Trump requested “dirt” on Clinton, and that Trump had undisclosed financial connections to Russia.
News outlets breathlessly covered these allegations. Perhaps the most aggressive was MSNBC, who oriented their media coverage for multiple years around every undulation of the Russian collusion story. The stories spanned the bizarre, from pushing an unverified conspiracy that the Trump campaign worked with the Russia to leak Democratic National Committee emails to giving a platform for Clinton to suggest—again, without evidence—that Trump associates worked with Russia to undermine the election.
Don’t Forget Chief Conspiracist Rachel Maddow
While the network had many personalities pushing these talking points, one host was undoubtedly the most active: Rachel Maddow. She told The New York Times she was “happy to admit” that she was “obsessed with Russia.” She wasn’t exaggerating.
On March 17, 2017, Maddow speculated that “the presidency is effectively a Russian op” borne of collusion with Russian intel. On May 23, 2018, she suggested President Trump was only in office “because Russia put him there.” Then, on July 18, 2018, Maddow said that not only had Russia elected Trump, but it may also have picked his cabinet, too.
MSNBC was far from alone. BuzzFeed News was the first to publish a trove of dubious and since largely disproven information known as the Steele dossier, named for its author, former MI5 officer Christopher Steele, that purported to show a clear connection between future President Trump and the Russians.
CNN even had to force out three reporters over a since-retracted story that claimed to draw a connection between Trump and Russia. Opinion and reporting headlines from The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Time, The New York Times, and others suggested President Trump was “acting on behalf of a hostile foreign power” or otherwise in bed with Russia.
Perhaps the most outlandish claim was made by Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, who speculated in a cover piece from July 9, 2018 that Trump may have been an asset of Soviet and then Russian intelligence dating back to 1987. While suggesting that the leader of the free world was secretly acting on behalf of a hostile foreign government may have once drawn laughter, Chait was heralded as a heroic sleuth, appearing on MSNBC, NPR’s “This American Life,” and other outlets shortly after his article, as sober and serious reporters asked gravely about the implications of his speculation.
After the Mueller Report, the Theory Evaporated
Then, just as these stories were seemingly building to a crescendo, they stopped. The Mueller report, which many believed would finally vindicate the collusion narrative—with supporters even writing their own fanfiction and lighting devotional candles—couldn’t demonstrate collusion. While some of the most committed advocates, such as Schiff, vowed to continue the cause, the story quickly fell from the attention of the mainstream media and Democratic elected officials.
Since then, many of the core allegations of the collusion narrative have sustained damaging, even damning, body blows. The Steele dossier’s credibility has crumbled. The “sub-source” from the dossier originally published by BuzzFeed News proved not only untrustworthy but to be someone U.S. intel had identified as a threat to national security and investigated for being a potential Russian spy, raising the prospect that the underlying finds may have been deliberate Kremlin disinformation.
A declassified ruling from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court found that the basis for surveillance against the Trump campaign, which gave rise to the impeachment and broader collusion narrative, was based on a lie, and an FBI agent pleaded guilty to falsifying documents. Just this week, handwritten documents from former CIA Director John Brennan confirmed that the highest levels of the U.S. government were aware of the Clinton campaign’s plan to weaponize the Russian collusion allegation against Trump in the election.
Nothing to See Here, Because the Truth Helps Trump
Outside of conservative media, these developments have largely been greeted with silence. The collusion narrative, once the key talking point for Democrats, went unremarked upon at the Democratic National Convention. While individual voices, such as Paul Farhi and Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, have been deeply critical, most mainstream outlets have avoided discussing the underlying facets of the narrative even as they imploded, or have even brought on key players to push their since-disproven talking points.
In hindsight, the allegations range from overeager to nearly comical. But it’s important to remember that they have had a real, lasting impact on American politics, and that those chiefly responsible have yet to be held accountable. There’s every reason to believe that many, perhaps even most Americans still believe in the hoax: a poll from 2019 found that nearly 50 percent of respondents believed President Trump had colluded with Russia.
Where is the follow up from anyone, at all, about any of this? If you aren’t outraged by all this, and the clear coordination across multiple organs of the U.S. government, I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know how to convince you to care that the president of the United States has been undermined for four years by a malicious lie from his political opponents.
President Trump has vowed to make public all documents related to investigations into his campaign about alleged connections to Russia. More bombshells may be coming in the weeks and months ahead, which could further undermine the original allegations.
The experience will, hopefully, serve as a cautionary tale about the rush to believe thinly sourced allegations that support one’s biases. But that will require that any lessons from this saga are learned at all. Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C., and a former Republican congressional staff member.
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