the country wants to know why the press won’t cover the growing scandal
now implicating the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of
Justice, and threatening to reach the State Department, Central
Intelligence Agency, and perhaps even the Obama White House.
all, the release last week of a less-redacted version of Sens. Charles
Grassley and Lindsey Graham’sJanuary
4 lettershowed that the FBI secured a Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to search the communications of a
Trump campaign adviser based on a piece of opposition research paid for
by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The
Fourth Amendment rights of an American citizen were violated to allow
one political party to spy on another.
the press did its job and reported the facts, the argument goes, then it
wouldn’t just be Republicans and Trump supporters demanding
accountability and justice. Americans across the political spectrum
would understand the nature and extent of the abuses and crimes touching
not just on one political party and its presidential candidate but the
rights of every American.
all true, but irrelevant. The reasons the press won’t cover the story
are suggested in the Graham-Grassley letter itself.
Was a Media Informant
letter details how Christopher Steele, the former British spy who
allegedly authored the documents claiming ties between the Trump
campaign and Russia, told the FBI he wasn’t talking to the press about
his investigation. In a British court, however,Steele
acknowledgedbriefing several media organizations on the material
in his dossier.
to the British court documents, Steele briefed theNew
Post, Yahoo! News,TheNew
Yorker, and CNN. In October, he talked toMother
Jonesreporter David Corn by Skype. It was Corn’s October 31
article anonymously sourced to Steele that alerted the FBI their
informant was speaking to the press. Grassley and Graham referred Steele
to the Department of Justice for a criminal investigation because he
lied to the FBI.
list of media outfits and journalists made aware of Steele’s
investigations is extensive. Reuters reported that it, too,was
briefedon the dossier, and while it refrained
from reporting on it before the election, its national security reporter
Mark Hosenball became an advocate of the dossier’s findings after
Paul Wood wrote in January 2017 that he wasbriefed
on the dossiera week before the election.Newsweek’s
Kurt Eichenwald likely saw Steele’s work around the same time, because
he published anarticledays
before the election based on a “Western intelligence” source (i.e.,
Steele) who cited names and data points that could only come from the
DNC- and Clinton-funded opposition research.
line from the Grassley-Graham letter points to an even larger circle of
media outfits that appear to have been in contact with either Steele or
Fusion GPS, the Washington DC firm that contracted him for the
opposition research the Clinton campaign and Democratic National
Committee commissioned. “During the summer of 2016,” the Grassley-Graham
letter reads, “reports of some of the dossier allegations began
circulating among reporters and people involved in Russian issues.”
the Carter Page Story
it looks like Steele and Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson may have
persuaded a number of major foreign policy and national security writers
in Washington and New York that Trump and his team were in league with
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Those journalists includeNew
Yorkereditor David Remnick,Atlanticeditor
Jeffrey Goldberg, formerNew
Republiceditor Franklin Foer, andWashington
Postcolumnist Anne Applebaum.
Foer story published
in Slate on July 4, 2016 appears to be central. Titled
“Putin’s Puppet,” Foer’s piece argues the Trump campaign was overly
Russia-friendly. Foer discusses Trump’s team, including campaign
convention manager Paul Manafort, who worked with former Ukrainian
president Victor Yanukovich, a Putin ally; and Carter Page, who, Foer
wrote, “advised the state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom and
helped it attract Western investors.”
how Page described himself in a March 2016Bloomberginterview.
But as Julia Ioffe reported ina
September 23, 2016Politicoarticle,
Page was a mid-level executive at Merrill Lynch in Moscow who played no
role in any of the big deals he boasted about. As Ioffe shows, almost no
one in Moscow remembered Page. Until Trump read his name off a piece of
paper handed to him during a March interview with theWashington
Post, almost no one in the Washington foreign policy world had
heard of Page either.
what got Foer interested in Page? Were Steele and Simpson already
briefing reporters on their opposition research into the Trump campaign?
story for Slate, an October 31, 2016 article about the Trump
organization’s computer servers “pinging” a Russian bank, wasreportedly
“pushed” to him by Fusion GPS.) Page and Manafort are the
protagonists of the Steele dossier, the former one of the latter’s
intermediaries with Russian officials and associates of Putin. Page’s
July 7 speech in Moscow attracted wide U.S. media coverage, but Foer’s
article published several days earlier.
Slate article, then, looks like the predicate for allegations against
Page made in the dossier after his July Russia trip. For instance,
according to Steele’s investigations, Page was offered a 19 percent
stake in Rosneft, one of the world’s energy giants, in exchange for help
repealing sanctions related to Russia’s 2014 incursion into Ukraine.
an Echo Chamber of Opposition Research
have noted the absurdity that the FISA warrant on Page was chiefly
based, according to a House intelligence committee memo, on the dossier
and Michael Isikoff’s September 23, 2016 news story also based on the
dossier. But much of the Russiagate campaign was conducted in this
circular manner. Steele and Simpson built an echo chamber with their
opposition research, parts of the law enforcement and intelligence
communities, and the press all reinforcing one another. Plant an item in
the open air and watch it grow—like Page’s role in the Trump campaign.
else was Foer or anyone so interested in Page? Why was Page’s Moscow
speech so closely watched and widely covered? Accordingto
Post, Page “chided” American policymakers for an
“often-hypocritical focus on democratization, inequality, corruption and
regime change” in its dealings with Russia, China, and Central Asia.
peculiar as it may have sounded for a graduate of the Naval Academy to
cast a skeptical eye on American exceptionalism, Page’s speech could
hardly have struck the policy establishment as shocking, or even novel.
They’d been hearing versions of it for the last eight years from the
president of the United States.
speech before the United Nations General Assembly(UNGA),
on September 23, 2009, he insisted that no country, least of all
America, has the right to tell other countries how to organize their
political lives. “Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the
outside,” said Obama. “Each society must search for its own path, and no
path is perfect. Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture
of its people and in its past traditions.”
sounded even more wary of American leadership on his way out of office
eight years later. In his2016
UNGA speech, the 2009 Nobel laureate said: “I do not think that
America can — or should — impose our system of government on other
countries.” Obama was addressing not just foreign nations but perhaps
more pointedly his domestic political rivals.
2008 Obama campaigned against the Iraq War and the Republican
policymakers who toppled Saddam Hussein to remake Iraq as a democracy.
All during his presidency, Obama rebuffed critics who petitioned the
administration to send arms or troops to advance U.S. interests and
values abroad, most notably in Ukraine and Syria.
2016, it was Trump who ran against the Republican foreign policy
establishment—which is why hundreds of GOP policymakers and foreign
policy intellectuals signed two letters distancing themselves from the
party’s candidate. The thin Republican bench of foreign policy experts
available to Trump is a big reason why he named the virtually unknown
Page to his team. So why was it any surprise that Page sounded like the
Republican candidate, who sounded like the Democratic president?
Didn’t the Left Like Obama’s Ideas from a Republican?
the Right, many national security and foreign policy writers like me
heard and were worried by the clear echoes of Obama’s policies in the
Trump campaign’s proposals. Did those writing from the left side of the
political spectrum not see the continuities?
PostJuly 21, 2016,Applebaum
explainedhow a “Trump presidency could
destabilize Europe.” The issue, she explained, was Trump’s positive
attitude toward Putin. “The extent of the Trump-Russia business
connection has already been laid out, byFranklin
wrote Applebaum. She named Page and his “long-standing connections to
Applebaum’s talking points come from Steele’s opposition research?
more suggestive to Applebaum is that just a few days before her article
was published, “Trump’s campaign team helped alter the Republican party
platform to remove support for Ukraine” from the Republican National
Committee’s platform. Maybe, she hinted, that was because of Trump aide
Manafort’s ties to Yanukovich.
those talking points come from Steele’s opposition research? Manafort’s
relationship with Yanukovich had been widely reported in the U.S. press
long before he signed on with the Trump campaign. In fact, in 2007 Glenn
of the first to write abouttheir shady dealings
while he was still working at theWall
Street Journal. The corrupt nature of the Manafort-Yanukovich
relationship is an important part of the dossier. So is the claim that
in exchange for Russia releasing the DNC emails, “the TRUMP team had
agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue.”
reality, however, is that the Trump campaign team never removed support
for Ukraine from the party platform. In a March18,
2017 Washington Examiner article, Byron York interviewed the
convention delegate who pushed for tougher language on Russia, and got
the end, the platform, already fairly strong on the Russia-Ukraine
issue,” wrote York, “was strengthened, not weakened.” Maybe Applebaum
just picked it up fromher
own paper’s mis-reporting.
Applebaum, it was hard to understand why Trump would express skepticism
about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, except to appease Putin.
She referred to a recent interview in which Trump “cast doubt on the
fundamental basis of transatlantic stability, NATO’s Article 5
guarantee: If Russia invades, he said, he’d have to think first before
defending U.S. allies.”
Echoes Pick Up
an article published the very same day in theAtlantic,
Jeffrey Goldberg made many of the very same observations. Titled “It’s
Official: Hillary Clinton is Running Against Vladimir Putin,” the
article opens: “The Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump,
has chosen this week to unmask himself as a de facto agent of Russian
President Vladimir Putin.” What was the evidence? Well, for one, Page’s
expressed admiration for Putin and other “equivocating, mercenary
statements,” wrote Goldberg, are “unprecedented in the history of
Republican foreign policymaking.” However, insofar as Trump’s
fundamental aim was to find some common ground with Putin, it’s a goal
that, for better or worse, has been a 25-year U.S. policy constant,
across party lines. Starting with George W.H. Bush,every
American commander-in-chiefsince the end of the
Cold War sought to “reset” relations with Russia.
with George W.H. Bush, every American commander-in-chief since the end
of the Cold War sought to ‘reset’ relations with Russia.
Trump, according to Goldberg, was different. “Trump’s understanding of
America’s role in the world aligns with Russia’s geostrategic
interests.” Here Goldberg rang the same bells as Applebaum—the Trump
campaign “watered down” the RNC’s platform on Ukraine; the GOP nominee
“questioned whether the U.S., under his leadership, would keep its
[NATO] commitments,” including Article 5. Thus, Goldberg concluded:
“Donald Trump, should he be elected president, would bring an end to the
postwar international order.”
last bit sounds very bad. Coincidentally, it’ssimilar
to a claim madein the very first paragraph of
the Steele dossier — the “Russian regime,” claims one of Steele’s
unnamed sources, has been cultivating Trump to “encourage splits and
divisions in the western alliance.”
West won the Cold War because the United States kept it unified. David
Remnick saw it up close. Assigned to theWashington
Post’s Moscow bureau in 1988, Remnick witnessed the end of the
Soviet Union, which he documented in his award-winning book, “Lenin’s
Tomb.” So it’s hardly surprising that in hisAugust
Yorkerarticle, “Trump and Putin: A Love
Story,” Remnick sounded alarms concerning the Republican presidential
candidate’s manifest affection for the Russian president.
the “original reporting” of Foer’s seminal Slate article, theNew
Yorkereditor contended “that one reason for
Trump’s attitude has to do with his business ambitions.” As Remnick
elaborated, “one of Trump’s foreign-policy advisers, has longstanding
ties to Gazprom, a pillar of Russia’s energy industry.” Who could that
be? Right—Carter Page. With Applebaum and Goldberg, Remnick was worried
about Trump’s lack of support for Ukraine and the fact that Trump “has
and has suggested that he might do away with Article 5.”
Did All These Echoes Come From?
brings us to the fundamental question: Is it possible that these top
national security and foreign policy journalists were focused on
something else during Obama’s two terms in office, something that had
nothing to do with foreign policy or national security? It seems we must
even entertain the possibility they slept for eight years because nearly
everything that frightened them about the prospects of a Trump
presidency had already transpired under Obama.
one thinks of Obama’s foreign policy, it is hardly arguable that he
ceded American interests in Europe and the Middle East in an effort to
avoid conflict with Russia.
Trump team wanted to stop short of having the RNC platform promise
lethal support to Ukraine—which was in keeping with official U.S.
policy. Obama didn’t want to arm the Ukrainians. He ignorednumerous
congressional effortsto get him to change his
mind. “There has been a strong bipartisan well of support for quite some
time for providing lethal support,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff.
But Obama refused.
for the western alliance or international order or however you want to
put it, it was under the Obama administration that Russia set up shop on
NATO’s southern border. With the Syrian conflict, Moscow re-established
its foothold in the Middle East after 40 years of American policy
designed to keep it from meddling in U.S. spheres of influence. Under
Obama, Russia’s enhanced regional position threatened three U.S. allies:
Israel, Jordan, and NATO member Turkey.
2012, Moscow’s Syrian client brought down a Turkish air force
reconnaissance plane. According to a2013Wall
Street Journalarticle, “Turkish Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised alarms in the U.S. by suggesting
that Turkey might invoke NATO’s Article V.” However, according to theJournal,
“neither the U.S. nor NATO was interested in rushing to Article V… NATO
was so wary of getting pulled into Syria that top alliance officials
balked at even contingency planning for an intervention force to protect
Syrian civilians. ‘For better or worse, [Syrian president Bashar al-
Assad] feels he can count on NATO not to intervene right now,’ a senior
Western official said.”
one thinks of Obama’s foreign policy, it is hardly arguable that
he—wisely, cautiously, in the most educated and creative ways, or
unwisely, stupidly, cravenly, the choice of adjectives is yours—ceded
American interests and those of key allies in Europe and the Middle East
in an effort to avoid conflict with Russia.
Russia occupied Crimea and the eastern portion of Ukraine, there was
little pushback from the White House. The Obama administration blinked
even when Putin’s escalation of forces in Syria sent millions more
refugees fleeing abroad, including Europe.
Anyone Paying Attention When This Happened?
it couldn’t have escaped Applebaum’s notice that Obama’s posture toward
Russia made Europe vulnerable. She’s a specialist in Europe and
Russia—she’s written books on both. Her husband is the former foreign
minister of Poland. So how, after eight years of Obama’s appeasement of
a Russia thatthreatened
to withhold natural gas suppliesfrom the
continent, did the Trump team pose a unique threat to European
it possible that Goldberg never bothered to research the foreign policy
priorities of a president he interviewed five times between 2008 and
about Goldberg? Is it possible that he’d never bothered to research the
foreign policy priorities of a president he interviewed five times
between 2008 and 2016? In thelast
interview, from March 2016, Obama told him he was “very proud” of
the moment in 2013 when he declined to attack Assad for deploying
chemical weapons. As Obama put it, that’s when he broke with the
“Washington playbook.” He chose diplomacy instead. He made a deal with
Russia over Assad’s conventional arsenal—which Syria continued to use
against civilians throughout Obama’s term.
regardless of how you feel about Obama’s decisions, the fact is that he
struck an agreement with Moscow that ensured the continued reign of its
Syrian ally, who gassed little children. Yet only four months later,
Goldberg worried that a Trump presidency would “liberate dictators,
first and foremost his ally Vladimir Putin, to advance their own
wrote a 2010 biography of Obama, but did he, too, pay no attention to
the policies of the man he interviewed frequently over nearly a decade?
How is this possible? Did some of America’s top journalists really
sleepwalk through Obama’s two terms in office, only to wake in 2016 and
find Donald Trump and his campaign becoming dangerously cozy with a
historical American adversary?
Fair in War and Politics
course not. They enlisted their bylines in a political campaign on
behalf of the Democratic candidate for president and rehearsed the
talking points Steele later documented. But weren’t the authors of these
articles, big-name journalists, embarrassed to be seen reading from a
single script and publishing the same article with similar titles within
the space of two weeks? Weren’t they worried it would look like they
were taking opposition research, from the same source?
stories were vessels built only to launch thousands of 140-character
salvos to then sink into the memory hole.
not really. In a sense, these stories weren’t actually meant to be read.
They existed for the purpose of validating the ensuing social media
messaging. The stories were written around the headlines, which were
written for Twitter: “Putin’s Puppet”; “It’s Official: Hillary Clinton
is Running Against Vladimir Putin”; “Trump and Putin: A Love Story”; “The
Kremlin’s Candidate.” The stories were vessels built only to
launch thousands of 140-character salvos to then sink into the memory
everyone took Clinton’s victory for granted, journalists assumed
extravagant claims alleging an American presidential candidate’s illicit
ties to an adversarial power would fade just as the fireworks
punctuating Hillary’s acceptance speech would vanish in the cool
November evening. And the sooner the stories were forgotten the better,
since they frankly sounded kooky, conspiratorial, as if the heirs to the
Algonquin round table sported tin-foil hats while tossing back martinis
and trading saucy limericks.
the Trump-Russia collusion media campaign really was delusional and
deranged; it reallywas
a conspiracy theory. So after the unexpected happened, after Trump
won the election, the Russiagate campaign morphed into something more
urgent, something twisted and delirious.
Pin Our Garbage Story on Someone
story—co-written by Evan Perez, aformer
colleague and friendof Fusion GPS
principals—that the Obama administration’s intelligence chiefs had
briefed Trump on the existence of the dossier, it not only cleared the
to publish the document, it also signaled the press that the
intelligence community was on side. This completed the echo chamber,
binding one American institution chartered to steal and keep secrets to
another embodying our right to free speech. We know which ethic
Russiagate was no longer part of a political campaign directed at Trump,
it was a disinformation operation pointed at the American public.
Russiagate was no longer part of a political campaign directed at Trump,
it was a disinformation operation pointed at the American public, as the
pre-election media offensive resonated more fully with the dossier now
in the open. You see, said the press: everything we published about
Trump and Putin isreallytrue—there’s
a document proving it. What the press corps neglected to add is that
they’d been reporting talking points from the same opposition research
election, and were now showcasing “evidence” to prove it was all true.
reason the media will not report on the scandal now unfolding before the
country, how the Obama administration and Clinton campaign used the
resources of the federal government to spy on the party out of power, is
not because the press is partisan. No, it is because the press has
played an active role in the Trump-Russia collusion story since its
inception. It helped birth it.
report how the dossier was made and marketed, and how it was used to
violate the privacy rights of an American citizen—Page—would require
admitting complicity in manufacturing Russiagate. Against conventional
Washington wisdom, the cover-up in this case is not worse than the
crime: Both weigh equally in a scandal signaling that the institution
where American citizens are supposed to discuss and debate the choices
about how we live with each other has been turned against a large part
of the public to delegitimize their political choices.
Isn’t the 27-Year-Olds’ Fault
over the last yearthat the phony collusion
narrative is a symptom of the structural problems with the press. The
rise of the Internet, then social media, and gross corporate
mismanagement damaged traditional media institutions. As newspapers and
magazines around the country went bankrupt when ownership couldn’t
figure out how to make money off the new digital advertising model, an
entire generation of journalistic experience, expertise, and ethics was
lost. It was replaced, as one Obama White House official famously
explained, by 27-year-olds who “literally know nothing.”
the first vehicles of the Russiagate campaign were not bloggers or
recent J-school grads lacking wisdom or guidance to wave off a piece of
patent nonsense. They were journalists at the top of their
profession—editors-in-chief, columnists, specialists in precisely the
subjects that the dossier alleges to treat: foreign policy and national
security. They didn’t get fooled. They volunteered their reputations to
perpetrate a hoax on the American public.
why, after a year of thousands of furious allegations, all of which
concerning Trump are unsubstantiated, the press will not report the real
scandal, in which it plays a leading role. When the reckoning comes,
Russiagate is likely to be seen not as a symptom of the collapse of the
American press, but as one of the causes for it.
Smith is the media columnist at Tablet and a senior fellow at the Hudson