- Paul Rosenberg
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Trump- Russia Scandal is a Smoking Gun in a Smoke-Filled Room
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
On Jan. 10, Buzzfeed published an explosive series of memos (misleadingly called a “dossier”) from a former British spy, later revealed to be Christopher Steele, former head of MI6’s Russia desk, with a network of sources there.
The first memo, dated June 2015, alleged the “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least 5 years… to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance … [and that Russian intelligence] has compromised Trump through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.”
“The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors,” BuzzFeed warned. “CNN reported Tuesday that a two-page synopsis of the report was given to President [Barack] Obama and [president-elect Donald] Trump.
“Now BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.”
From other reports, it immediately became obvious that the memos had circulated widely for months. The author had repeatedly updated the FBI, hoping to spur an investigation, which seems to have languished, for reasons unknown, even as FBI Director James Comey sparked a last-minute public wild-goose chase after Clinton emails in the last two weeks of the campaign. In late October, while the phony Clinton email scandal again dominated the news, Mother Jones correspondent David Corn published a story based on the FBI information, but no one had published any of the actual content before. At the same time, the story was consistent with recent Russian political activity working to undermine other western democracies—with Trump’s Russian ties (praising Putin at least since 2007), and with Trump’s long, sordid personal history. All three actions were severely under-reported during the campaign.
The Real Scandal
Maybe there wasn’t a smoking gun in the memos, but there was a smoke-filled room full of unanswered, even unasked questions.
“Maybe we ought instead to abandon our obsession with ‘secrets’ and ‘spies’ and look at what is sitting in front of us,” Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote on Jan. 13.
She went on to cite Trump’s reliance on Russian money (the exact quantity is unknown), his political ties to Russia through former campaign manager Paul Manafort, his altering the Republican Platform by softening language on Ukraine, his repetition of “slogans and conspiracy theories — ‘Obama invented ISIS,’ ‘Hillary will start World War III’ — lifted from Sputnik, the Russian propaganda website,” and his dogged fealty to Putin, never speaking ill of him, no matter what.
The most telling of the sources Applebaum links to is a Dec. 19, 2016 story in the American Interest, by investigative economist and journalist Jim Henry.
“A few of Donald Trump’s connections to oligarchs and assorted thugs have already received sporadic press attention,” Henry writes. “But no one has pulled the connections together, used them to identify still more relationships and developed an image of the overall patterns.”
“Nor has anyone related these cases to one of the most central facts about modern Russia: its emergence since the 1990s as a world-class kleptocracy, second only to China as a source of illicit capital and criminal loot, with more than $1.3 trillion of net offshore ‘flight wealth’ as of 2016,” said Henry, which is important for understanding the political big picture.
That kleptocracy was created by the way Russia reorganized after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. American neoliberals played a central role in that process.
“From 1992 to the Russian debt crisis of August 1998, the West in general — and the U.S. Treasury, USAID, the State Department, the International Monetary Fund/World Bank, the EBRD and many leading economists in particular—actively promoted and, indeed, helped to finance one of the most massive transfers of public wealth into private hands that the world has ever seen,” he wrote. “For example, Russia’s 1992 ‘voucher privatization’ program permitted a tiny elite of former state-owned company managers and party apparatchiks to acquire control over a vast number of public enterprises, often with the help of outright mobsters.”
This program turned out to be enormously unpopular.
Boris Yelstin began his 1996 re-election campaign with just 8 percent support. But, with help from U.S. political consultants, massive new IMF loans worth $10.1 billion, and campaign cash from newly-wealthy oligarchs, Yeltsin managed to get re-elected over the Communist Party candidate. From then on, the kleptocrats were fully in charge, it was only a question of which ones landed on top. But the cash they looted had to go somewhere. Trump was a prime beneficiary. Henry quotes Donald Trump Jr. from a 2008 conference presentation:
[I]n terms of high-end product influx into the United States, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.
The big picture bottom line Henry points to is this:
[N]either Trump nor Putin is an “uncaused cause.” They are not evil twins, exactly, but they are both byproducts of the same neoliberal policy scams that were peddled to Russia’s struggling new democracy.
This is precisely the essence of what Trump pretended to run against: the neoliberal global elites running the whole world. Far from fighting against it, he and Putin are its most outrageous examples. This is the big-picture crime scene. This is what’s in the smoke-filled room. It’s a story that some in the media have told — pieces of it, at least — but that the media as a whole has proven incapable of grasping as a whole, much less communicating to the public.
Telling big, complicated stories is hard, a lot harder than having scoops handed to you, or covering hot he said/she said controversies. And no one knows this better than Trump.
So, naturally, when BuzzFeed published the memos, Trump hit back hard, in his usual scatter-shot, wild way.
“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public,” he tweeted. “One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
But BuzzFeed didn’t get the documents from the intelligence agencies, they’d been circulating among journalists for months, journalists who also didn’t leak what was in the documents to the public. It was Trump’s version of events in his tweet that was actually fake news, underscored by his ludicrous invocation of Nazi Germany. In the real world, it’s Trump’s own repeated attacks on the press that have experts worried about totalitarian rule. “Lying press” was a Nazi epithet used to delegitimate the German mainstream media that opposed Hitler’s rise and accurately reported on his movement’s bigotry, paranoia and violent tendencies.
At his first press conference in six months, Trump repeatedly refused to take a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta, specifically calling CNN “fake news,” an obvious lie on Trump’s part. The memos surely contain errors, but CNN merely reported on the synopsis being presented to the president and president-elect, a straightforward matter of fact.
“CNN’s decision to publish carefully sourced reporting about the operations of our government is vastly different than BuzzFeed’s decision to publish unsubstantiated memos,” CNN wrote the next day. “The Trump team knows this. They are using BuzzFeed’s decision to deflect from CNN’s reporting, which has been matched by the other major news organizations.”
But even the memos themselves weren’t fake news. They were presented as intelligence, in need of further investigation. Fake news stories are objectively false, while purporting to be true.
Still, there was widespread press reaction against what BuzzFeed did. Columbia Journalism Review took a dim view of complaints. While the most typical style of investigative reporting involves months of gathering documents and cultivating sources, Managing Editor Vanessa M. Gezari observed,
“BuzzFeed took a different but still well-established approach: release what you can when you have it and see what new leads it generates,” Gezari said.
There’s nothing unethical in the approach — provided you don’t misrepresent raw information as confirmed fact. Sometimes it may be the only way to get the information you need.
“Some critics seem to be saying that unless the information in an intelligence briefing or other leaked document can be independently verified by reporters, it shouldn’t be published,” Gezari continued. “But did reporters independently verify all the allegations against Hillary Clinton and her allies contained in the emails released by WikiLeaks?”
Obviously, they didn’t. Clinton has been the subject of similar recklessness for a quarter century now. After the election, voters were even quoted citing Clinton’s supposed involvement in the “murder of Vincent Foster” as a reason she’s more untrustworthy than Trump. Foster committed suicide in 1993, but anti-Clinton conspiracists have insisted he was murdered for decades. Fake news stories have kept such claims alive and Trump revived the charges during his campaign, falsely describing theories of possible foul play in his death is “very serious” in a May 2016 interview with the Washington Post. He falsely claimed that the circumstances of his death were “very fishy.”
But in reality, as Vox reported at the time, “few if any suicides have been investigated as thoroughly—or repeatedly—as Foster’s, and it’s very clear what happened to him. It was a tragic suicide, not a murder to further a cover-up.”
While it was almost trivial compared to Trump’s lengthy involvement in promoting birtherism, it reflected the same basic mindset and modus operandi on Trump’s part: a habitual reliance on discredited make-believe, gossip and fake news to attack whomever stands in his way, matched with an instant reflex to play the victim whenever anything critical is said about him, as a way to preemptively shut down further inquiries.
A Roadmap from the Past
All this is a highly amplified echo of what happened in the 2004 campaign. On the one hand, John Kerry, a decorated war hero, was savagely and effectively attacked with a fake news operation decades in the making — the so-called “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth” — based on the absurd notion that Kerry had not really earned a Purple Heart, but had somehow conned the Navy into giving it to him — or perhaps, he simply pinned the medal on himself? On the other hand, there was an extensive, highly detailed record showing that George W. Bush had not fulfilled his military obligation, and had been flat-out absent without official leave for a period of months. Evidence of Bush’s dereliction of duty had been uncovered by the Boston Globe during the 2000 campaign, but Bush’s full military records were successfully blocked from public view, until 2004, when two separate researchers, Paul Lukasiak and Col. Gerald Lechliter, put together detailed analysis proving that Bush had failed to fulfill his requirements and that he had benefited from some sort of coverup. But their work, which Random Lengths explored at length in October 2004, was dense and complicated. It was not made for sensationalist TV.
What would make a sensationalist scoop would be one single “smoking gun” document that could prove the existence of a conspiracy and cover up, rather than patiently putting all the pieces together, so that a clear, undeniable picture emerged. That picture was one of the smoke-filled backroom, from which Bush was protected by his father’s friends. That smoking gun is what Dan Rather and 60 Minutes went after, shortly before we ran our story. The result was a disaster. By all appearances, the memos in question — from Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush’s superior at one point — were apparently accurate, Killian’s secretary, Marian Carr Knox, said.
“I know that I didn’t type them,” she said in a followup broadcast interview, “However, the information in those is correct.”
An accurate forged document is consistent with “Bush’s Brain,” Karl Rove’s modus operandi, and suggests it was intentional disinformation designed to discredit any and all questioning of Bush’s record — whether it was or not, it worked.
The Steele memos are similar smoking gun material, and the fact they can’t — or at least haven’t been — confirmed is now being used to discourage further questioning, just as happened with Bush military service. But as much as the core dynamic is similar, the surrounding political environment is radically different today. There are not just two dedicated researchers who’ve put together a big-picture view of the smoke-filled room, there are scores of them. And the focus is not on a tightly circumscribed military/bureaucratic cover up of an AWOL junior officer decades in the past. The focus is on the global financial and political forces that are reshaping our world and have been doing so in their current form, at least since the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a very big smoke-filled room, indeed. And we’re going to stumble around in it for a good long time — at least if we keep getting distracted by looking for smoking guns, rather than simply examining what’s right in front of our eyes.