Like the vast majority of the country, the Democratic Party establishment was in complete and utter shock when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Almost all of the most influential media pundits were convinced there was no way Hillary Clinton would lose.
Democrats, especially those closely aligned with the Clintons, quickly turned to the theory that the Trump campaign engaged in conspiracy or coordination with officials of the Russian government as the best explanation for dealing with the shock of the moment. They wielded this theory in order to unify and mobilize opposition to Trump.
Now, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has concluded. Mueller was unable to “establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Aaron Maté spent every other week for the past two years debunking false claims and deliberate exaggerations in the United States media that fed all sorts of wild and feverish story lines about the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia President Vladimir Putin’s administration.
As a post-mortem on the responsibility the press bears for deluding citizens and profiting off this panic, journalist Matt Taibbi compiled the best and most comprehensive survey.
Taibbi concluded, “We won’t know how much of any of [the stories around Russia hacking the Democratic National Committee] to take seriously until the press gets out of bed with the security services and looks at this whole series of events all over again with fresh eyes, as journalists, not political actors. That means being open to asking what went wrong with this story, in addition to focusing so much energy on Trump and Russia.”
Why Clinton Democrats Invested So Much Into Trump-Russia Narrative
Part of the process of asking what went wrong has to involve a collective acknowledgment of why the Democratic political establishment was so invested in what was commonly referred to as Russiagate.
Hillary Clinton survived a contentious primary challenge by Senator Bernie Sanders, who was backed by a groundswell of progressive, socialist, and independent voters fed up with the centrism and establishment politics of Clinton. Many of the most influential Democrats had to align against Sanders to ensure Clinton won enough state primaries to become their 2016 nominee.
The Clinton campaign planned, as early as April 2015, to “make whomever the Republicans nominate[d] unpalatable to a majority of the electorate.”
“Force all Republican candidates to lock themselves into extreme conservative positions that will hurt them in a general election,” the campaign recommended. “Undermine any credibility/trust Republican presidential candidates have to make inroads to our coalition or independents.”
It advocated against marginalizing “more extreme candidates.” The campaign wanted “Pied Piper candidates,” like Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson, to be viewed as representatives of the Republican Party.
“We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”
In 2015, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook pushed for a primary schedule, where the red states held their primaries early. It would increase “the likelihood the Rs nominate someone extreme.”
Following the Democratic National Convention in July, the Clinton campaign was aware that much of her lead over Trump had disappeared, partly because she referred to supporters of Trump as “deplorables” and Republicans were able to weaponize that remark.
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, describes how the U.S. intelligence community gave the campaign a “godsend” in October, when they alleged the Russians were responsible for hacking into the Democratic National Committee. Their conclusions were viewed as “hard evidence upon which Hillary could start to really build the case that Trump was actually in league with Moscow.”
“Putin might not be a Communist anymore, but he was a Russian autocrat who came to power after a distinguished career in the KGB,” Allen and Parnes wrote. “This was the kind of spy-thriller shit that would surely break through in the press.
“If the public saw Trump putting Russian interests above American sovereignty, Hillary’s aides thought, the story had the potential to break his back. After all, in the Red Scare days, Republicans had portrayed liberal Democrats as un-American in unflinching terms.”
The Clinton campaign’s efforts to construct a narrative that Trump was in league with Moscow were undermined by WikiLeaks’ daily publication of emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
While the Clinton campaign attempted to persuade the public that WikiLeaks was working for the Russian government, they could not compete with the attention that was paid to revelations in the emails, which included excerpts of Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street banks as well as evidence of how Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) tilted the scales against the Sanders campaign.
After Election Day ended and Trump won, according to Allen and Parnes, “The Clintons and their allies weren’t ready for the end of their era when it came.”
“They had been planning on a triumphant return to the White House — not just during this last campaign but ever since they handed the keys over to George and Laura Bush in 2001. For their entire adult lives, Bill and Hillary Clinton had been plotting a political rise — first his, then hers. Suddenly, shockingly, they were without an office to seek or hold.”
Allen and Parnes added, “The absurdities of the election — Russian cyber attacks, a rogue FBI director, and an orange-hued reality TV star winning the Republican nomination — intensified the sense of grief for Hillary, Bill, and their inner circle. None of it seemed fair, and it had all happened so fast. No one in Clintonworld wanted to accept the end, but it had come.”
A relatively small number of close friends and high-level advisors apparently were willing to concede Clinton was to blame for her defeat. She setup the private email server. She put her name on the Clinton Foundation. She gave speeches to Wall Street banks in a “time of rising populism.” All of the above and much more had made it hard for her to compete with Trump.
However, “within 24 hours of her concession speech,” influential campaign staff, like Mook and Podesta, seized upon the Russia narrative as the “centerpiece” of the argument for why Clinton lost.
“In Brooklyn, her team coalesced around the idea that Russian hacking was the major unreported story of the campaign, overshadowed by the contents of stolen emails and Hillary’s own private server imbroglio,” Allen and Parnes reported.
“The Clinton campaign and the DNC paid for opposition research memos written by former British MI6 intelligence agent Christopher Steele using hearsay accusations from anonymous Russian sources to claim that the Russian government was blackmailing and bribing Donald Trump,” according to Consortium News editor-in-chief Joe Lauria.*
“The DNC did not allow the FBI to examine its computer server for clues about who may have hacked it — or even if it was hacked — and instead turned to CrowdStrike, a private company co-founded by a virulently anti-Putin Russian. Within a day, CrowdStrike blamed Russia on dubious evidence.”
As Lauria contended in 2017, “Possibly all of the Russiagate allegations, which [were] taken on faith by Democratic partisans and members of the anti-Trump Resistance, [traced] back to claims paid for or generated by Democrats.”
The Trump-Russia narrative was appealing because it gave Clinton campaign staff the ability to avoid taking a large part of the responsibility for losing to Trump. It offered them some security.
If this narrative dominated media coverage, they would maintain their relevancy and still be asked regularly to write op-eds for prominent media outlets or appear on cable news television. They would still be consulted for their opinions and could offer commentary without having to defend their reputations.
Putin’s Puppet: The Democrats’ Security Story
It was an appealing security story to share with Democratic voters, who were left stunned and even afraid after the outcome.
Democrats were also faced with a base that had irreconcilable differences over how to address key issues. The Trump-Russia narrative was an easy way to avoid continuing debates the Sanders campaign forced around single-payer health care, jobs, free college tuition, taxes, the environment, and corporate welfare. (These debates, by the way, were ones Sanders Democrats were winning.)
Charles Derber and Yale R. Magrass analyzed how elites manufacture security stories and protect their own wealth and power in their recent book, “Moving Beyond Fear: Upending the Security Tales in Capitalism, Fascism, and Democracy.”
Security stories can be traced all the way back to the days of feudalism during the Middle Ages. As they argue, Trump presented a security story that involved him as a great protector. He alone would save “True Americans” from real and conjured enemies, like undocumented immigrants, American Muslims, Black Americans. He would also protect people’s jobs from the “globalist” agenda.
Similarly, Clinton Democrats, from former campaign staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to DNC Chair Tom Perez, cast Trump as a tyrannical figure, who was under the influence of a foreign power. Trump was effectively Putin’s puppet, or he was naively going along with Putin’s agenda.
Democrats presented a security story that involved supporting them as they ensured a proper investigation into the 2016 presidential election was completed. They suggested it would uncover all sorts of evidence of how Trump worked with elements tied to the Russia government to win. As long as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation was protected from obstruction, the truth would defeat Trump.
Their security story fueled hope that the Russia investigation would reveal criminality, and it would discredit Trump more than any Democratic Party campaign against him ever could.
It did not matter if Democrats intended to follow through and impeach Trump if evidence of criminality was uncovered. This is how Democrats focused their resistance to an administration engaged in countless attacks on vulnerable populations in the United States.
Trump As a Valuable “Russian Asset”
Even as it became abundantly clear that Mueller would uncover no smoking gun evidence to prove a conspiracy, these people remained invested in the narrative.
The Clinton campaign’s rapid response director, Zac Petkanas, unequivocally stated, “Every day the investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller and those on Capitol Hill show that Kremlin-gate is not only very real but has the makings of a massive criminal conspiracy of historic proportions.”
Podesta regularly appeared in the press to remind citizens that his email account was hacked, and he believed emails in his account were “weaponized” by Russians so Trump would win.
“If Trump is effectively a Russian asset, at what point do the staff who support him become accessories to Russia’s plan too?” Mook wrote.
Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden, who was a campaign advisor, said, “Isn’t it kinda clear that Trump wouldn’t have won without Russia’s help? Wake up America.”
Joel Benenson, chief strategist and pollster for the Clinton campaign, declared, “I find White House intrigue less newsworthy than the fact that every day Donald Trump acts like Putin has him by the short hairs. Trump is a bully who acts like a scared puppy in every interaction with Putin & Russia.”
Adam Parkhomenko, founder of the Ready for Hillary super PAC, suggested, “In reality, Trump has been a chaos agent for Russia for years. He was just more transparent with his insane accusations towards President Obama.”
“Trump has got to be one of the dumbest, most valuable, and most susceptible (kompromat) assets Russia has ever had all at the same time,” Parkhomenko added.
Former CIA director and secretary of defense Leon Panetta was a senior foreign policy advisor for the campaign. He was a regular commentator on CNN and MSNBC and contended, “Whether the Russians have something on this president or not, no one really knows, but the way he behaves, there is a clear signal that the Russians have something on him.”
Many of the people who believed Hillary Clinton would be a proper custodian of American superpower relied on the Trump-Russia narrative to pressure the Trump administration to follow their preferred U.S. foreign policy doctrine. Foreign policy advisors, like Jake Sullivan and Michele Flournoy, found platforms to advocate against Trump’s diplomatic overtures to Russia.
PBS FRONTLINE produced a series of interviews for their documentary called, “Putin’s Revenge,” which featured a who’s who gallery of individuals politically aligned with the Clinton campaign: former CIA director John Brennan; former director of national intelligence James Clapper; former Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson; former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul; former spokesperson for U.S. State Department, Victoria Nuland; Rep. Adam Schiff; former deputy secretary of state for Bill Clinton’s administration, Strobe Talbott; and Podesta and Sullivan.
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who was part of the Clinton administration, said Trump was the “gift that keeps giving to Putin.”
While there should be transparency and the Mueller report should be released in some form, it is unlikely to support such outlandish remarks that were made routinely by former Clinton campaign staff and individuals tied to the Clintons since Trump won.
A Way To Manage Dissent
Outside from the value this Trump-Russia narrative held for individuals who found themselves without a White House to manage, it subtly and overtly helped to control dissent against them. It was consistently noted that alleged Russian influence campaigns spread postings on social media intended to boost Sanders or Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.
These warnings had the effect of keeping the public on guard for Russian propaganda, which is to some degree whatever U.S. officials, politicians, media pundits, and think tanks label as such.
It was, and still may be, a viable way to limit debate and enforce conformity on issues, particularly within the Democratic base who are constantly warned to be afraid that any policy disagreements will be manipulated by Trump to help him win.
Concerns about alleged Russia propaganda grew into projects like the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which developed Hamilton 68, a “tracker” it claimed could unearth Russian influence operations. But the individuals involved with Hamilton 68 refused to share their methodology. They followed accounts “run by people around the world who amplify pro-Russian themes either knowingly or unknowingly,” which meant any dissent deemed to be “anti-American” could draw their attention to hashtags worth tracking.
The work of Hamilton 68 was used to justify censorship of numerous Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. So, too, was the work of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, as well as a dubious initiative called PropOrNot that led to the blacklisting of multiple alternative news media organizations.
For the record, the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s advisory council includes people like McFaul, Podesta, and Sullivan, as well as former acting CIA director Mike Morell, former Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff, and Bill Kristol, who was a part of the Project for New American Century (PNAC) that pushed for the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.
All of the above served to escalate information warfare between the U.S. government and Russian government. On March 18, it was reported that Putin signed two bills into law that will allow the Russian government to target and fine or possibly even jail individuals who spread “fake news.”
In February, Trump took the drastic action of withdrawing the U.S. government from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that was negotiated by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. The move threatens to ignite another nuclear arms race between the two global powers that will put European countries particularly at risk.
The Trump administration withdrew the U.S. government amid widespread accusations that Trump was beholden to Putin.
The efforts of Clinton Democrats effectively transformed Russia into the country Americans viewed as the greatest threat to the United States, according to a Gallup poll released in February.
Yet, as of March 2019, the “situation with Russia” still barely charts in polls where Americans are asked what they see as the most important problem the U.S. faces today.
As Nina Turner, who is the campaign chair for the 2020 Sanders campaign, said in May 2017, “No one in Ohio is asking about Russia. If you want to know about the people of Ohio, they want to know about jobs. They want to know about their children.”
She noted if one traveled to Flint, Michigan, they would not ask about Russia or Jared Kushner. They would want to know when they would have clean water or why “some 8,000 people” were about to “lose their homes.”
“We are preoccupied with this,” Turner added. “It’s not that this is not important, but every day Americans are being left behind because it’s Russia, Russia, Russia. Do we need all 535 members of Congress to deal with Russia? Can some of them deal with some domestic issues?”
When The Clinton Administration Influenced A Russian Election
Let’s recall, as Guardian columnist Owen Jones highlighted, “As soon as Bill Clinton assumed the White House in 1993, his experts discussed ‘formulating a policy of American tutelage,’ including unabashed partisan support for President Boris Yeltsin. ‘Political missionaries and evangelists, usually called ‘advisors,’ spread across Russia in the early and mid-1990s.’” Many of these “advisors” received U.S. government funding.
“The results were, to put it mildly, disastrous,” Jones added. “Between 1990 and 1994, life expectancy for Russian men and women fell from 64 and 74 years respectively to 58 and 71 years. The surge in mortality was ‘beyond the peacetime experience of industrialized countries.’ While it was boom time for the new oligarchs, poverty and unemployment surged; prices were hiked dramatically; communities were devastated by deindustrialization; and social protections were stripped away.”
In 1996, a team of American political strategists “served as Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin’s secret campaign weapon” in a “comeback win over a Communist challenger,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
George Gorton, who worked for Governor Pete Wilson’s bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996, was hired by a “San Francisco firm with connections in Moscow.” The team never met Yeltsin. They sent “unsigned memos to his daughter,” and Gorton said they were “retained as advisors to the Yeltsin family.” They developed an “American-style campaign to counter the public sentiment running against Yeltsin.”
The Los Angeles Times also reported, “Felix Braynin of San Francisco, a Soviet immigrant who [was] a wealthy consultant to American businesses working in Russia, asked for advisors who could help. “San Francisco lawyer Fred Lowell suggested Gorton and Joe Shumate, an expert on political polling, and Richard Dresner, a political strategist” who “helped not only Wilson but President Bill Clinton in his earlier campaigns for governor of Arkansas.”
Before their efforts, “Yeltsin’s approval rating was about 6%, and, as they told Time magazine, Josef Stalin had a higher positive rating in their polls.” Yeltsin beat Communist candidate Gennady A. Zyuganov “by more than 13 percentage points.”
Not only did the U.S. government meddle in Russia’s election, but the Clinton administration were involved in an influence operation supported by some of the very people who have regularly professed anger against election meddling nonstop for the past years.
In 2011, Putin accused the U.S. government of supporting protests against the outcome of elections. He attacked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for suggesting voting was “rigged.”
“We need to safeguard ourselves from this interference in our internal affairs and defend our sovereignty,” Putin declared. “It is necessary to think about improving the law and toughening responsibility for those who take orders from foreign states to influence internal political processes.”
Should we view the election of Donald Trump as blowback for the Clintons’ actions against Russia? If one believes Russian hacking is the key reason why Clinton lost, then that should definitely be part of any conversation.
More significantly, the United States and Russia have the majority of the world’s nuclear weapons. Clinton argued during her campaign that Trump could not be trusted to make “life-or-death decisions” because he is “thin-skinned” and quick to get angry when facing even the “smallest criticism.” She invited voters to imagine what apocalyptic event might transpire if he had his “finger anywhere near the button,” a clear reference to nuclear weapons.
At no point, however, did any prominent Clinton Democrat pause to truly consider how their pressure against Trump would ratchet up tensions and make the world less safe.
For what it is worth, the vast majority of Democratic presidential candidates have not made the Trump-Russia narrative their main focus in any of their stump speeches. Nor was it really a decisive factor in the wave of victories Democrats enjoyed in 2018.
The rise of left-wing populism, bolstered by the success of the Sanders campaign in 2016, has made offering a meaningful alternative vision to Trump’s agenda the top priority. Focusing on that alternative vision may be the best way to move on from the Trump-Russia narrative.
The impact of what an elite faction of the American political class set in motion will reverberate into 2020 and beyond.
The outcome of the Mueller investigation is already being seized upon by the Trump White House and huge sections of the right-wing media echo chamber to discredit journalists, politicians, and news stories, who have led the opposition against Trump. This is how Trump plans to further consolidate his power and insulate his administration from valid political critiques and future investigative reporting that may expose corruption.
There will likely be zero repercussions for former Clinton campaign staff who pushed Russiagate conspiracy theories.
Regardless of whether they take responsibility for their actions, all Americans must reckon with the fact that Trump has claimed victory because Mueller did not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that his campaign conspired with the Russia government.
*Article was updated on April 2 to include additional specific details of Clinton campaign and DNC support for Russiagate allegations in 2016