“What wrong facts did we put out?”
CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked this question under a hail of criticism directed at the press since Sunday, when Attorney General William Barr announced that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was unable to establish “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia. Cuomo’s question echoes the insistence by other media figures that the press got the reporting on the scandal largely right.
It’s true that the media doesn’t deserve wholesale condemnation. There was plenty of fair, informative investigative reporting around Trump and Russia. But the idea that the media is blameless for the past two years of swirling panic, misinformation and conspiracizing is a cop-out that could turn out to be more damaging for the mainstream press than an honest reckoning with its failures.
The irony is that if the press was looking for crimes, there was no shortage of them. Trump is a career criminal who has spent his entire life lying, cheating and swindling his countrymen, from bilking people through his fake university, to the sexual assaults he’s been accused of and admitted to, to his blatantly unconstitutional refusal to divest himself from his businesses, through which he’s been enriching himself through his presidency. This isn’t even to get into his deliberately ruinous environmental and other regulatory policies, the obvious corruption that’s driven them, and his callous and incompetent response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, which rivaled only the botched hurricane relief effort that helped sink George W. Bush’s presidency.
The media doesn’t deserve criticism for digging into corruption, whether Russian or otherwise, in the Trump campaign and administration. What it does deserve criticism for is for relentlessly pushing onto a frightened public the dangerous narrative that Trump was literally under the control of Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as this theory became increasingly untenable. The media deserves criticism for near-constant fear-mongering over Russia, often through spurious reporting, and for ignoring the real threat of mounting tensions between the two nuclear powers.
While MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and a host of online cranks and grifters may be serving as scapegoats for pushing such theories, the problem was far bigger. It was overwhelmingly mainstream media that broadcast what would normally be considered a fringe conspiracy theory, and as a result helped to stoke increasing aggression toward Russia while helping push the doomsday clock closer to midnight than it’s ever been.
Consider the vast array of discredited, retracted reporting in this vein: C‑Span was hacked by RT (Fortune); a Vermont power grid was hacked by Russians (Washington Post); Trump had a secret email server piping him in to a bank in Russia (Slate); independent news outlets are “Russian propaganda” that spread “fake news” (Washington Post, again). And that’s all before Trump was even inaugurated. At one point during the presidential campaign, a Bloomberg reporter asked Hillary Clinton if bomb attacks in New York and New Jersey could possibly be part of a Russian plot to “drive votes to Donald Trump.”
Such misreporting has continued throughout the Trump presidency, handing him more ammunition to both attack the media and claim victimization by the establishment. And each error, often walked back to less public attention, has helped fuel the theory that Putin controls Trump, while also inflating the Russian threat.
One of the major elements of the theory, cited at the time and ever after, was a mangled story about the Trump campaign “dramatically alter[ing]” the Republican platform on Ukraine. Media outlets uncritically repeated the story that the Trump campaign “weakened” or “softened” the GOP platform on Ukraine, removing language pledging to send lethal arms to Ukraine. Adopting such a policy would have been a major escalation of military tensions with Russia, which is why President Obama had resisted it for years. The episode was regularly painted as something suspect and sinister, or, in the words of Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, “pro-Russian.” One Forbes headline spuriously proclaimed Trump had been “deferring to Putin.”
In fact, as Masha Gessen — a fierce Putin critic who has indefatigably pushed back against the Putin-owns-Trump conspiracy theory since it began — and others have pointed out, this isn’t the real story of what happened. Rather, the Trump team softened the language of a proposed amendment to the platform that would have pledged to send weapons to Ukraine, replacing it with a call for “appropriate assistance” to the country. The rest of the amendment, which was plenty tough on Russia, was kept and can be viewed in the final platform, which promises “greater coordination with NATO defense planning,” and to maintain, and even increase, sanctions on Russia.
The incident set the pattern of painting Trump as a Kremlin agent whenever he failed to be hawkish enough on the world stage.
From July 2016 onward, the Clinton campaign’s strategy of tying Trump to Russia was in full swing. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook pointed to the leaks, the GOP platform incident, and Trump’s threats to not defend NATO allies, as something voters should “reflect on.” Ex-CIA deputy director Michael Morell penned a New York Times op-ed endorsing Clinton and calling Trump an “unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” without disclosing he was employed by a consulting firm founded by three Clinton aides.
Media figures quickly picked this up, using inflammatory language that suggested Trump was being controlled by Russia, which they sometimes walked back later on in the text or presented as simply asking questions. He was “Putin’s Puppet,” wrote Slate’s Franklin Foer. Jeffrey Goldberg, who had spent the early 2000s infamously writing discredited reports pushing for war in Iraq, called him Putin’s “de facto agent.” Anne Applebaum suggested he was a “Manchurian candidate,” while Paul Krugman viewed him as the “Siberian candidate,” questioning “what kind of hold” Putin had over him and “whether that influence will continue if he wins.”
Meanwhile, the Guardian quoted a figure from the weapons manufacturer-funded Atlantic Council claiming that a Trump administration would lead to “appeasement” on Ukraine and Syria, and a “closer relationship with Russia” that would “endanger western security interests.” Calling the Russian election meddling “one of the year’s most underreported stories,” the Washington Post’s Colbert I. King claimed that “in Donald Trump, Russia will never have had it so good.” Headlines blared about Trump going on a “state-owned Russian network”; it was left to readers who went beyond the headlines to find out he was actually appearing on Larry King’s show.
This was all heightened by Mother Jones’ decision in October to publish David Corn’s report about the now largely discredited Steele dossier, which claimed the Kremlin had been working for years to cultivate Trump as an intelligence asset and had blackmail material on him, leading Vanity Fair to questions whether he was a “Manchurian candidate.” Ironically, on that same day as the Vanity Fair headline, the New York Times published a report about the FBI failing to find conclusive evidence of a connection between Russia and the Trump campaign, which now appears to have aged far better.
After Trump’s victory, Corn would go on to publish another report based on the dossier, suggesting Trump had been spied on and compromised by Russia. It quoted analyst Malcolm Nance, who has since accrued a record of making sensational fabrications, that Trump was “potentially a victim of blackmail” and that Russia, “without question,” had “information he would not want exposed.” The Times’ Nicholas Kristof called the hacking “an attack on America,” and claimed Trump would be a “Russian poodle,” as evidenced by his appointing Rex Tillerson, “a Putin friend,” to run foreign policy. (When Trump later fired Tillerson, this, too, would be construed as suspiciously pro-Russian by some members of the media).
Despite all this, as president-elect, Trump appeared to take a harder line against Russia. He staffed his administration with anti-Russian and anti-Iranian hawks like Jim Mattis, Mike Pompeo and Jeff Sessions, and made noise about upgrading and expanding U.S. nuclear capability, a sharp break from the rhetoric of previous administrations. Just days into his presidency, he phoned Putin and trashed the 2010 New Start nuclear arms control treaty, claiming that he wouldn’t renew it. It would later come out that Trump rejected the Kremlin’s offer of full normalization of relations.
Pundits apparently didn’t notice, however, with Colbert I. King speculating in December that a Trump-Putin pact could be “on the horizon.” Sometimes stories would run whose salacious headlines were rebuked by the actual content, as when Vox ran this interview promising to explain “how Putin made Trump his puppet,” only for the interviewee, the editor of the Moscow Times, to say he didn’t believe in “the conspiracy theories about ‘golden showers’ and blackmailing,” which he thought were “shallow.”
As U.S.-Russian relations steadily worsened and Trump became ever more aggressive towards the country, many news outlets — enthralled by salacious spy-thriller tales of kompromat, secret meetings and shadowy conspiracies — ignored the Trump administration’s tensions with Russia in lieu of speculating over and over about whether or not Trump was secretly being influenced by Putin.
Even as Democratic officials tamped down expectations about what they would find in investigations, and officials like Mike Morell himself and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned they’d seen no evidence, news outlets plowed ahead, often on remarkably shallow terms. When Trump reacted to an unfavorable rating on the GOP health care plan by criticizing Obamacare — in other words, regular behavior from a politician — NPR charged he was using the (alleged) Russian tactic of “whataboutism.” CNN claimed the White House “is starting to look like Putin’s Kremlin,” because of Trump’s nepotism and lying (the article helpfully made clear past the sensational headline that there was no evidence Trump was Putin’s puppet). Vanity Fair speculated that the daily chaos of Trump’s presidency was actually a conscious tactic imported from Putin.
April 2017 saw Tillerson visit Moscow for the first time. It was a disaster for renewing the countries’ relationship, with Tillerson and his Russian counterpart sniping at each other at the press conference, largely due to tension over Trump’s airstrike in Syria earlier that month. CNN noted Trump’s honeymoon with the country was markedly shorter than those of previous presidents. Ahead of Tillerson’s Moscow trip, neocon Max Boot, also a previously pro-Iraq War pundit who has since scored a column at the Post, declared Trump was either “Russia’s useful idiot” or “irreparably compromised,” while a day after the press conference, the paper’s opinion columnist Jennifer Rubin decided it was “very, very unlikely” that all of Trump’s Russia connections were “mere happenstance.”
As military tensions between the two countries in Syria became increasingly hostile, Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer who became an anti-Trump pundit after the election, warned in the Post, again, that the GOP was “becoming the party of Putin” (when the two later signed a ceasefire, this was “Trump’s gift to Putin”). In July, Trump challenged Russia’s natural gas export dominance in Eastern Europe and gave one of the more anti-Russian speeches from a president in modern memory in Warsaw, while Putin expelled hundreds of U.S. diplomats. “Why does Trump still refuse to criticize Putin?” later blared the Atlantic.
Starting in August 2017, Trump halted visas for Russians, withdrew from the Iran deal while facing Russian objections, accused Russia of stifling his efforts to get rid of North Korean nukes, and closed three Russian diplomatic facilities. Meanwhile, Politico broadcast Clapper’s (who had since then become a cable news talking head with a penchant for making wild, unsubstantiated accusations) claim that “the Russians have exceeded beyond their wildest expectations,” the Guardian stated the Steele dossier’s findings were “grow[ing] more significant by the day,” while David Corn repeated the dossier’s allegations of Trump blackmail.
In December 2017, Trump unveiled an aggressive new national security strategy taking aim squarely at Russia, and days later crossed a previously untouched line by finally sending weapons to Ukraine, sending U.S.-Russian relations to a new low. “Putin’s man in the White House?” questioned Newsweek.
By February 2018, the fact-checkers at Politifact decided the statement that Trump’s “been much tougher on Russia than Barack Obama” was “mostly false.” The following month, when Putin announced he was testing a range of new nuclear capabilities, NBC decided the Kremlin had become “increasingly emboldened by the Trump administration” and was responding to “an American foreign policy of weakness about Russia.”
This reached its apogee with the Helsinki summit in July last year. Even though Trump had taken more than twice as long as his predecessors to hold his first bilateral talks with Putin, U.S. media fear-mongered and conspiracized about the summit in advance, opposing any sort of meeting. The Washington Post editorial board declared that even meeting with Putin was “kowtowing” to him, other outlets claimed it would be a “big geopolitical win” for the Russian leader, while New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait — yet another phantom WMD proponent in the Iraq War lead-up who had morphed seamlessly into a “Russiagate” booster — penned his now-infamous case for Trump as a 30-year Russian asset.
When Trump used threats of pulling out of NATO to extract higher spending commitments from other members, and appeared to take Putin’s word that Russia hadn’t hacked the DNC at a joint press conference soon after, the media went apoplectic, alleging charges of treason and treachery. Innuendo abounded about what Putin and Trump had discussed behind closed doors (arms control, it turns out), and the media have widely spread the false claim that Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Putin was something new and unprecedented.
This has been much of the media’s posture since, with U.S.-Russian relations getting steadily worse as Trump has become more bellicose, and the media simply ignoring this fact in favor of ongoing insinuations about Trump’s true loyalty. No one at this point should be surprised that when Trump pulled out of the Reagan-era INF treaty in February, yet another provocation to Russia, a variety of news outlets deemed it a “gift” to Putin.
The media’s heedless encouragement of this idea is indefensible, all the more so for how much resources, time and public attention it’s monopolized. Abdicating its responsibility to inform, the press utterly ignored vital issues like the war in Yemen, climate change and growing labor unrest so it could, in the alleged words of CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker, “get back to Russia,” a topic that meant big ratings, clicks, subscription numbers and, therefore, profits and professional prestige for those selling it. It also dangerously misinformed an anxious public about what its government was doing on the world stage, while pushing a conspiracy theory their fellow journalists in Russia found puzzling and laughable.
The result has been a frenzy of misleading coverage far more wide-reaching, politically consequential and, ultimately, beneficial to Trump than anything some troll farm could have cooked up. And by driving up tensions with Russia, handing Trump a public relations win ahead of the 2020 campaign may end up being the least of its consequences.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.