$500,000 of Russian Cheese, Wasted?

Matt Bivens, MD
Oct 25 · 6 min read

Once upon a time, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and her husband Bill was a freewheelin’ ex-president of the U.S. of A., jetting here and there to collect huge sums for brief speeches. “I gotta pay our bills,” he told NBC News a few years ago in defending the practice. So he collected $1.5 million from the Swiss bank UBS for “a series of question-and-answer sessions with UBS Wealth Management Chief Executive Bob McCann,” $600,000 to shoot the breeze with the guys at Goldman Sachs, $500,000 from the government of Abu Dhabi for a 20-minute talk on climate change. (For the record: I do a 30-minute talk on climate change, and I bet it’s smarter. Make me an offer, Abu Dhabi!)

And in 2010, our former U.S. president flew to Moscow, on hire for a single speech at a Russian investment bank, Renaissance Capital. Cha-ching! Another $500,000. Gotta pay those bills. (This is all cash to citizen Clinton, and is a separate matter from the larger sums donated to his charitable foundation.)

Ask yourself:

How is it that the Russian government — having supposedly decided at the highest levels to sink Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and sabotage our entire shining democracy — never made use of this $500,000 Russian payout?

Hillary Clinton is in the news again, arguing that everyone from Army Major Tulsi Gabbard to physician Jill Stein to real estate flim-flam man Donald Trump have all been secretly groomed over the years as Russian sleeper agents. It’s another vast conspiracy against her.

“I don’t know what Putin has on him,” she says of President Trump. She states that Putin might be blackmailing Trump with either personal or financial indiscretions, and says, “I assume” it is probably both.

Well.

We do know at least one thing that Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin have on the Clintons: He took a $500,000 paycheck for an hour’s work in Moscow, while she was secretary of state. Putin called Clinton afterwards to thank him.

For more than 3 years now, we’ve been told the Russian government has been engaged in an all-out, all-fronts covert operation to “hack our democracy.” At times, it was supposedly about tricking us into electing Donald Trump president; at other times, it was supposedly because the Russians hate our freedoms.

And so we have tied ourselves in knots, investigated and indicted, libeled and locked up. And eventually, all of the hyperventilating came down to allegations of ingenious Kremlin-directed plots like … using social media to circulate bad reviews of “Star Wars: the Last Jedi.” A disinformation expert tells us this was a plot aimed at “increasing media coverage of the fandom conflict, thereby adding to and further propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society.”

(That is some deep chess. “We will unleash the Russian trolls. They will sit at computers and write bad reviews of ‘Star Wars: the Last Jedi.’ Thus we provoke media coverage of fandom conflict. Thus we increase a sense of discord and dysfunction. Thus we bring America to her knees.”)

If the Kremlin wanted to “sow discord” or “get Hillary” — then they would have used Bill’s $500,000 payday from Russia’s Renaissance Capital bank. I say this as a former Moscow-based correspondent who covered Russia for years, but it’s also just common sense.

The Kremlin could have unveiled authentic or inauthentic details of Clinton-associated corruption — it would not have had to be true to be devastating. The KGB could have randomly arrested a dozen poor American and Russian souls in Moscow and organized a show trial of “the conspiracy with the Clintons.” Cue the increased sense of discord and dysfunction!

The fact that the Kremlin didn’t do anything like this by itself all but debunks the paranoid Russiagate tragicomedy.

$500,000 of Russian cheese …

Hillary and Bill together, over about 15 years, made about $10 million a year from speeches to Goldman Sachs, UBS, Deutsche Bank and others. It’s like a really boring family circus act, the Flying Clintons: $153 million over 15 years. For brief speeches! (By comparison it’s anti-climactic to complain about daughter Chelsea Clinton’s barely-there $600,000-a-year stint at NBC News, a tour de force of journalism best known for her interview with the GEICO gecko.)

But then, one day, Bill Clinton sticks his head into a Russian mousetrap, hopefully following the scent of another $500,000. Does Putin snap it shut? No. He is a devious and wily ex-KGB officer, steeped in dark spycraft. He might be under your bed right now! He is that dangerous!

But on Putin’s orders, instead of snapping shut the trap — say, by releasing a compromising dossier on Clinton’s latest field trip abroad to collect another envelop of $500,000 for basically doing nothing — instead, an army of Russian bots and trolls is unleashed! And this mighty army takes positions … both for and against gun control? Take that, America! As NBC News explains, the Kremlin chose to exploit one of our regularly scheduled mass shootings as part of its plot “to stoke America’s raw divides.” Because, you see, this … wait, what?

We are going to look back on this as a time of such shame.

We literally had a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report that alleged secret Russian government-sponsored advertisements for anti-masturbation hotlines, “creating an opportunity to blackmail or manipulate these individuals [who might call in].” (With no phone calls, or blackmail, or actual hotlines ever documented.)

Other influence campaigns the nefarious Russians pursued, according to the top minds of our Congress and our intelligence community, included posting a banner online that said “BORN LIBERAL!”

The words were shown across a peaceful skyscape dotted with birds.

It got more than 10,000 likes.

All part of the grand plan to tear us apart from within.

From the Buff Bernie Coloring Book, repurposed to sow discord and dysfunction.

And journalists neither questioned nor mocked this. They either ignored it uneasily, or, wide-eyed and dutiful, reported it. A Russian troll, we are told, posted an ad on Facebook. It’s a coloring book cartoon of a muscular Bernie Sanders in bikini briefs. It ran for a single day in March 2016 and was clicked on 54 times. Yet this is a matter addressed at the highest levels of the U.S. government, formally, in writing, by the House Intelligence Committee. Oh my goodness, the Russians are doing it again!

Buzzfeed digs into it. They track down the woman who made the coloring book. She had no idea the Russians were exploiting her work! This makes her a useful idiot, yes? “I feel pretty violated and very confused,” she tells Buzzfeed. The U.S. House Intelligence Committee reports that those devious Russians paid 111 rubles for the rainbow-colored Buff Bernie ad. At that day’s exchange rate, it works out to $1.60. “Not a huge con, but enough of one,” reported a grim Buzzfeed.

Seriously! This is how we’ve been occupying ourselves for the past 3 years!

“We don’t know whether anyone called,” noted another journalist about those purported masturbation hotlines, “what kind of experience they got if they did, whether any calls produced useful information, or whether the [Russians] ever needed to use blackmail material at all.”

That’s a lot we don’t know! And gee, since we know oh-so-very-little about the “Russians” behind ads that encouraged anyone “struggling with the addiction to masturbation” to “click here” — couldn’t this just have been a typical spam-style business? A clickbait farm? Tsunamis of money were sloshing back and forth across American media during the 2016 campaign season; isn’t it more likely that Russian spam-artists were simply trying to surf some of those waves, one dollar and sixty cents at a time?

So ads against gun control, or for Buff Bernie, or ripping into the Last Jedi as a bunch of bantha fodder, are just a flavor of the same “paid partner content” offerings at the bottom of your news website, which say things like, “This heart doctor begs you to stop eating these 3 foods!” or “You won’t believe how sad Billy Joel’s living situation is today.”

Well, we can’t go there — that’s not an approved interpretation! (Shh! What if asking about this helps Trump?) So. Masturbation hotlines, Russian-advertised. Very serious matter. Yes, a journalist concedes, anti-masturbation hotlines would be “fairly elaborate” for a secret government operation to bring down America, but since the Russians “exploited any divisive social issue, it’s not totally improbable.”

Wrong. It’s totally improbable.

It’s also long overdue to start getting angry about this, and to be supportive when anyone — yes, even Trump administration officials! — starts asking hard questions about who brought us this farce.

Matt Bivens, MD

Written by

Born in DC, studied at UNC-Chapel Hill, now living in Massachusetts. ER physician, EMS medical director, recovering newspaper journalist & Russia-watcher.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade