We’ve now reached that familiar phase of the propaganda cycle in which an unsubstantiated claim, because it has been vomited up so often by so many people of putative authority, is taken for granted as an uncontroversial fact. I write, of course, about Donald Trump’s axiomatic ties to Moscow, which I suppose we’ll be forced to hear about nonstop for at least the next four years, or until the deep state manages to deep-six Trump as they did Flynn.
True, Mike Flynn is a demented individual with an alarming worldview, whose influence would have been almost wholly malign. I detest him as much as the next guy. My first instinct upon learning of his resignation was to gloat, since war with Iran—for which Flynn was pushing hard, putting the Mullahs “on notice” and so forth—is about as harebrained a policy as the United States could pursue. But the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s implosion should give us all pause, because they reflect the dogmatic mode of thought currently infecting our political discourse.
We all know by now what transpired: Taking full advantage of the anti-Russian fever gripping the collective American psyche, a group of anonymous intelligence agents—who oppose Trump for all the wrong reasons—leaked to The Washington Post politically damaging information about a pre-inauguration phone conversation Flynn had with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.
Apparently Flynn discussed with Kislyak the sanctions Obama had imposed on Russia before leaving office. The transcripts of the call have not been published, however, so we don’t actually know what was said. It’s worth noting that an intelligence official who studied the transcripts told NPR that there is no evidence Flynn violated the Logan Act or any other law. “I don’t think he knew he was doing anything wrong,” the official said. “Flynn talked about sanctions, but no specific promises were made. Flynn was speaking more in general ‘maybe we’ll take a look at this going forward’ terms.” Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that Flynn had been ordered to make the call, “or that the trail leads any higher.”
But where there’s smoke there must be fire, right? Indeed. Within days, Trump capitulated and Flynn was out on his ear, charged officially with the high crime of having lied to Mike Pence. The faceless bureaucrats behind the leak then, correctly calculated that the mere hint of backstairs collusion with Moscow would be sufficient to destroy Trump’s national security advisor. It took them a few weeks. Imagine what they can accomplish in four years.
There are deeper implications here. As Damon Linker writes in The Week, Flynn’s undoing “is evidence of the precipitous and ongoing collapse of America’s democratic institutions.” He goes on:
In a liberal democracy, how things happen is often as important as what happens. Procedures matter. So do rules and public accountability. The chaotic, dysfunctional Trump White House is placing the entire system under enormous strain. That’s bad. But the answer isn’t to counter it with equally irregular acts of sabotage—or with a disinformation campaign waged by nameless civil servants toiling away in the surveillance state.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the history of the Third Reich (since Nazi comparisons are in vogue these days) knows how heavily secret police rely upon this tactic; it’s how people like Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler obtain and preserve power; it’s how they terrorize their opponents. Of course, we don’t live in Nazi Germany, so Flynn was allowed to resign as opposed to being shot, but the fact remains that he was brought down in a profoundly undemocratic—one might even say fascist—fashion. Call me crazy, but I think it would be rash to let our opposition to Trump blind us to other, more insidious abuses of state power.
Needless to say, the Flynn fiasco was cited as yet more evidence that Russia has effectively taken over the executive branch of the US government. But we’ve already established that, as far as anyone can tell, Flynn made the call of his own volition, and furthermore that he broke no law in doing so. So the whole episode constitutes evidence of nothing apart from the fact that certain elements of the security state have it in for a president who, whether we like it or not, was democratically elected. Celebrate that at your peril.
What about all the other “evidence”? Here’s what we have thus far: unproven allegations that Russia hacked, and sent to WikiLeaks, emails from the DNC and John Podesta; vague rumors from anonymous intelligence officials that Trump’s campaign was in contact with the Russian government leading up to the election; absurd claims that Moscow has compromising material on Trump with which they are blackmailing him; speculation that Trump has extensive business ties to Russia; and the fact that Trump repeatedly said he respects Vladimir Putin as a leader and would like to see the United States “get along with Russia” (something, I think it’s safe to say, that is no longer in the cards).
It’s hardly a knock-down case. Remember the intelligence report from January 6 that was supposed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the DNC hacks were directed by the highest levels of the Russian government? What a massive letdown that was. “We assess with high confidence,” the report stated, “that the [General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate] used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets.” Every assertion thereafter is prefaced with, and rendered worthless by, qualifiers such as “most likely” and “we assess.” Nothing approaching concrete evidence is ever presented; instead the report goes into minute detail about RT’s efforts throughout the campaign to paint Hillary in a negative light, as if that were some grand revelation. Nobody who had been paying the slightest degree of attention to the hacking saga came away from the report any the wiser.
And before you disparage me as a useful idiot or Kremlin stooge, consider what New York Times reporter Scott Shane wrote in the so-called Paper of Record on January 6: “What is missing from the public report is what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election hack.”
“Under the circumstances,” Shane continued, “many in Washington expected the agencies to make a strong public case to erase any uncertainty. Instead, the message from the agencies essentially amounts to ‘trust us.’ There is no discussion of the forensics used to recognize the handiwork of known hacking groups, no mention of intercepted communications between the Kremlin and the hackers, no hint of spies reporting from inside Moscow’s propaganda machine.”
The whole thing, in other words, was a farce; “high camp stuff,” according to veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Not quite as campy, though, as former MI6 agent Christopher Steele’s sensationalist “dossier,” which, in addition to embedding the term kompromat into our political lexicon, cast Trump as a dedicated urophiliac. Anyone wishing to make the case for the dossier’s value or credibility can take it up with Bob Woodward, who—very strongly, as Trump might say—described it as a “garbage document” that “never should have been presented as part of an intelligence briefing.”
Claims that Trump has significant financial assets in Russia and that those assets are behind his (erstwhile?) desire for rapprochement with Moscow are equally devoid of evidence, as even the most Russophobic, anti-Trump outlets concede. “As of now,” writes Zeeshan Aleem in Vox, “there isn’t any kind of evidence that suggests Trump has some spectacular financial prize to gain by warming to Russia.” Furthermore, “there’s no particular reason to think that getting friendly with Vladimir Putin ensures something for his real estate empire that couldn’t be gained by cozying up to, say, the president of Argentina.” Hard to argue with that.
The latest supplement to our McCarthyist mania is the news—leaked again by anonymous intelligence agents and first reported by The New York Times on Valentine’s Day—that Trump’s campaign personnel communicated with Russian officials in the run-up to the election. The implicit charge: Trump and his people were working in concert with Moscow to undermine Hillary’s campaign. Specifically implicated is Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort (connections to Ukraine, yes; to Russia, no). Manafort appeared genuinely taken aback by the accusations, telling CNN: “I cannot believe that they are including me in anything like that. I have not been involved in any of these activities.” He added that he has not been contacted by the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.
Owing to the orgiastic media coverage, a lot of people are probably under the assumption that this is the smoking gun we’ve been waiting for. The assumption is false. If evidence exists demonstrating that Manafort and others were conniving with the Russians to tilt the election in Trump’s favor, not a shred of it has been supplied. All we know is that, according to some nameless people in the US government, some of Trump’s aides spoke to some Russians during the campaign. That, if true, is not a crime; it’s hardly even newsworthy. As CNN admits, “communications between campaign staff and representatives of foreign governments are not unusual.”
The manufactured controversy was neatly summed up by investigative journalist Gareth Porter, who wrote in Consortium News that, all things considered, “the intelligence community had sought evidence of collusion by Trump aides with Russia but had not found it several months after reviewing the intercepted conversations and other intelligence.” That is plainly it.
And since we’re on the subject, I’m still waiting for the outrage to commence over Trump and Clinton’s explicit collusion with the Israeli government during the election cycle. You may recall that back in September both candidates met with “Bibi” Netanyahu in New York. Hillary, according to Haaretz, expressed her support for Israel’s continued defiance of the UN (and thus for all the crimes the Jewish State perpetrates against the Palestinians), while Trump promised to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, in breach of international law. Surely the congressional investigation into this criminal misconduct is due to be launched any day now…
Leaving aside the deficiency of evidence, the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory has always been undercut by a serious fault of logic. Think about it for two seconds. If Trump really had been enlisted by the Russians to subvert the American political system, why would he risk blowing his cover by speaking positively about them at all? Wouldn’t he instead cast himself as a fierce opponent of Vladimir Putin, so as to throw us all off the scent? I’m no spy, but it seems like bad form to blazon your true ideological allegiance while trying to infiltrate a rival organization.
The same goes for the other side. If they had devised a plot to sabotage Hillary Clinton, it simply doesn’t follow that the Russians would call attention to their covert operation by denigrating her in public, which they did relentlessly. Surely it would make more sense for them to act as though they wanted her to win, no? Takeaway: Either the Russians are the very epitome of ineptitude, or else the official US narrative is based on lies. Of course, it would have to be the former, wouldn’t it? After all, everyone knows the United States, like Abraham Lincoln, is fundamentally honest. Russia—not so much.
Roger Cohen of the New York Times expounds the dichotomy for us in a recent column called “The Russification of America,” wherein he laments the death of American virtue at the smallish (but they aren’t really all that small, are they?) hands of Donald Trump. Reporting from the Munich Security Conference, Cohen writes that “the most troubling thing was finding myself unsure who was more credible—[Mike] Pence or Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.”
You see, Lavrov, being Russian, is something of a genetic liar. He can’t help himself; it’s built into his DNA. As Cohen asserts, “Putin is only the latest exponent of what John le Carré called ‘the classic, timeless, all-Russian, barefaced, whopping lie’ and what Joseph Conrad before him called Russian officialdom’s ‘almost sublime disdain for the truth.’” And he proceeds to ask: “But what happens when the United States begins to be infected with Russian disease?” (My emphasis.) I’ll admit I had to read that twice, just to confirm that the Times is in fact promoting an explicitly racist view of the Russian people. Suppose, for the sake of analogy, that I chose to buttress my criticisms of Israel by quoting Ezra Pound, who said in 1942 that “the big Jew has rotted every nation he has wormed into” and in 1943 that “organized Jews” ought to be recognized as “a possible enemy of mankind.” Suppose I threw in some anti-Jewish remarks from Henry Ford for good measure. How would that go down? Do you think The New York Times might publish it?
Roger Cohen, in his vulgar, racist appeals to the doctrine of Western supremacy, represents an extreme version of the dogmatic mode of thought I mentioned earlier. According to this dogma, the United States is locked into an eschatological struggle against an enemy who is unlike us, beneath us, whose depravity is inborn, and who can be neither reasoned nor negotiated with. Demonizing an enemy is the first step in dehumanizing him, which of course is the first step in destroying him, as history has repeatedly shown. Israel does it in Gaza. We did it in Iraq. Certain advocates of the new Cold War would like nothing more than to do it in Russia.
But here’s the rub: No matter how many missile defense shields we install across Eastern Europe, and no matter how many trillions of dollars we spend modernizing our apocalyptic arsenal, the United States can’t destroy Russia without simultaneously destroying itself. Inexplicably, it seems that more and more people are beginning to come around to this contingency. They may very well live to experience it: Flynn’s replacement, the chrome-domed General H.R. McMaster, baits Russia like it’s his job (which it is). Start building your bunkers.