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Putin is Messing with Everyone, Including Democrats and the FBI

Part 4 of “Everything I Learned from the Impeachment of Donald Trump”

“If right doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how good the constitution is, it doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were, it doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy is in this trial, it doesn’t matter how well written the oath of impartiality is, if right doesn’t matter we’re lost, if the truth doesn’t matter we’re lost. The framers cannot protect us from ourselves if right and truth don’t matter.”

Adam Schiff delivered that powerful message during his closing arguments at Trump’s Senate trial, and it perfectly describes the reality Vladimir Putin is trying to push us towards, a reality he’s already managed to create in his own country (check out the video below for a great NYT piece on the disinformation strategies Russia has weaponized over the last 50 years).

The problem many on the left fail to realize is that it’s not only Trump and the right-wing media that are helping Putin in his efforts, but also Democrats, the mainstream media, and even the FBI.

An eye-opening moment for me was watching National Security Advisor Fiona Hill’s testimony during the House impeachment hearings. Hill lambasted Trump and many Republicans’ embrace of Russian-backed disinformation, like the idea that the real 2016 election interference was the Ukrainian government’s support of Clinton, not the Russian’s support of Trump. However, Hill cautioned Democrats against falling for Russian disinformation as well when she was asked by Republicans about the Democrat-funded dossier compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele that claimed Trump had been colluding with the Russian government for years and that they possess blackmail video of him peeing on prostitutes inside a Moscow hotel room. Hill characterized the dossier as a “rabbit hole” where “it’s very likely that the Russians planted disinformation in and among other information that may have been truthful, because that’s exactly, again, the way that they operate,” adding that “the Russians’ interest is frankly to delegitimize our entire presidency.”

Christopher Steele was offended by the idea that he could have been duped by Russian disinformation, saying that the idea the Russians would promote negative information about Trump is “not logical.” Such a categorical denial seems like exactly the kind of partisan tunnel-vision Russian disinformation hopes to create. Maybe I’m missing something as someone with no prior espionage experience, but some pretty logical rationales aren’t hard to imagine. For starters, Russia had to know that the FBI was investigating its 2016 election interference, and they also likely knew of Steele’s FBI connections. Any disinformation passed on to the FBI by Steele could waste valuable FBI resources, distracting agents from the real interference campaign taking place to favor Trump. Also, if Clinton had won the election and her campaign had used any of the disinformation fed to Steele, Trump could have accused her of stealing the election and the Republicans’ congressional investigation into the source and funding of the dossier would have created a big public distraction for Clinton’s presidency.

In the Russians’ 2016 dream scenario of a Trump win, any use of disinformation in the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign could be weaponized by Trump and his allies to discredit the entire FBI investigation, increase Trump’s paranoia about a “deep state” conspiracy out to get him, and maybe even lead to the President trusting his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani’s conspiracy theories over his own intelligence agencies, resulting in a partisan impeachment, partisan acquittal, increased divisions, and the erosion of global confidence in U.S. democracy and institutions…oh wait… that sounds exactly like what actually happened!

To date, none of the damning allegations of Steele’s dossier have been corroborated, and some have even been proven false, such as the allegation that Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen travelled to Prague to secretly meet with Russian agents in 2016. That’s not to say there’s no evidence of concerning links between people in Trump’s orbit and Russian intelligence, such as the possibility that the right-hand man of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort is a Russian agent (as mentioned in Part 3), or that Felix Sater, a Trump associate connected to the Russian mob, apparently told Cohen “I will get Putin on this program, and we will get Donald elected.” But having a few connections to people involved with Russia’s election interference does not necessarily equal a criminal conspiracy, and after investigating for years Robert Mueller ultimately found no direct evidence that Trump or his team “conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Public reporting on Steele’s dossier has shown how disinformation is leaking into the mainstream press and exacerbating partisan divisions. When the FBI received a public scolding in December 2019 from the DOJ’s Inspector General and the FISA court (the court that authorized the FBI’s surveillance of Trump campaign staff) for using Christopher Steele’s unreliable allegations in FISA surveillance requests, Trump and his allies at Fox trumpeted victory and continued to promote conspiracy theories of anti-Trump bias at the FBI, while mainstream media hosts like Rachel Maddow who had previously hyped up the dossier ignored the report’s destruction of the dossier’s credibility, instead focusing on the report’s conclusion that the FBI investigation wasn’t initiated because of anti-Trump bias. As unfortunately appears to be the norm these days, tuning into MSNBC or CNN presents one reality while tuning into Fox News presents another, even when they’re reporting on the exact same thing.

In the late 1970s, nearly three quarters of Americans trusted mainstream newspapers, radio and television news. According to Gallup, less than half of Americans do today, including only 15 PERCENT of Republicans! A lot of that shockingly low number has to do with perceptions of liberal mainstream media bias. The reporting on the Steele dossier and its subsequent lambasting by the Inspector General’s report show that it’s not a completely unfounded perception. It’s important for the future of our democracy that mainstream media outlets try and win back some semblance of trust among Americans who are gravitating towards alternative media that is unwittingly (and sometimes wittingly) pushing us ever closer to a world in which the truth doesn’t matter and we lose the ability to even recognize it.

Republicans, Democrats, the media, and even the FBI need to be careful about falling for Russian disinformation that aims to divide us. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Check back tomorrow for part 5: Last But Not Least, I Learned that Mitt Romney is Exceptional, Literally and Figuratively of my series “Everything I Learned from the Impeachment of Donald Trump.” In Part 1 of the series I learned to separate fact from fiction regarding Hunter Biden and Burisma; in Part 2 I learned how two unknown dual nationals removed a U.S. ambassador as part of a scheme that stinks of Putin; and in Part 3 I learned just how dangerous Trump’s quid pro quo foreign policy is for U.S. interests.

Riley Schenck is a politics junkie who has worked extensively on international development projects in Mexico

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