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Russiagate Off the Rails

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It’s been a crazy week in Russiagate news.

Anticipation and anxiety were high leading into Monday’s Helsinki meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the days leading up to the summit, FBI special counsel Robert Mueller had announced the indictments of 12 Russian nationals as part of his ongoing investigation into alleged interference in the 2016 election. Trump made things worse by announcing ahead of time that the scheduled rendezvous, requested by Putin, would be held in private with only translators present. Further fanning the skepticism, he had attended the NATO summit and demanded that member countries pony up more money for defense, and in a separate visit with Queen Elizabeth II of England, had broken protocol. Not one to read the room, just hours before the summit, the president tweeted that the U.S. bore the lion’s share of the blame for strained relations with Russia, prompting a Twitter meltdown during which #TreasonSummit began trending.

At the press conference after the meeting, Trump did little to assuage concerns about his relationship with the Russian President. Asked directly whether he trusted the consensus from the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had indeed meddled in the 2016 election, the president demurred, turning to his counterpart, and expressing his admiration and trust for him in plain English.

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said before denying any collusion between his campaign and Russia.

Naturally, all hell broke loose—again. #Treason started trending on Twitter; CNN’s Chris Cuomo declared the U.S. had “hit bottom,” calling Trump’s performance a “cowardly display of self-interest”; Vox called the meeting “geopolitical suicide”; New York published a piece by staff writer and Russiagate enthusiast nonpareil Jonathan Chait titled, “At Summit With Russia, Trump Betrays His Country in Plain Sight”; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) hinted publicly that the “only explanation” could be that Putin has “damaging information” on Trump; former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted that the president’s actions were “treasonous”; the Washington Post ran an article titled, “We just watched a U.S. president acting on behalf of a hostile power.” Topping all these off, Politico ran an op-ed dubbing the 2016 hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign, “Our Pearl Harbor.”

By Tuesday, Trump had walked back his rejection of the American intelligence community, claiming that he’d misspoken when he told reporters he saw “no reason why it would be Russia” behind the hacking. “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’” he declared. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’” The announcement was welcomed but met with widespread skepticism.

Then on Wednesday, details of the discussion between Trump and Putin emerged, presenting the country with fresh new horrors. As it turns out, the Russian president had offered to allow American prosecutors to sit in on the interrogations of the 12 Russian nationals accused of involvement in the 2016 election meddling, in exchange for allowing Russian prosecutors to interrogate 11 Americans in connection with alleged financial crimes committed by American born financier William Browder, a British citizen. In addition to Browder, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, one of the key proponents of the devastating US-backed neoliberal shock therapy in Russia during the 90’s, was named as a person of interest. Trump, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, was “considering” what Trump had dubbed an “incredible offer” in Helsinki—the proposal to assist in the potential prosecution of an American diplomat.

The former ambassador took to Twitter, castigating the president and claiming that Putin was “intimidating” him. Before long, #ProtectMcFaul was trending, and a new round of declaring Trump “treasonous” and a “traitor” had begun. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) told CNN that should the president acquiesce to Putin’s unprecedented request it would be grounds for impeachment. And indeed, the fact that Trump even seemed to consider the idea (even though it was totally unrealistic from the start, likely even from Putin’s perspective), is quite troubling—despite the fact that it wasn’t ever going to happen. Later that night, Twitter worked itself into yet another frenzy over a New York Times report that Trump had known about Russian interference weeks before his inauguration. The hashtag #TrumpKnew was trending.

However, despite the pearl clutching, by Thursday afternoon, very little had changed for either the U.S. or Russia. Michael McFaul remained safely planted on American soil, Putin’s proposal was rejected as was always going to happen; America’s alliances, including NATO, remained intact; the defense budget would still surely see a massive boost in the next fiscal next year; the $380 million Congress had appropriated to the states to shore up election security was still very much available (as of June, 26 states had registered to take advantage of the aid); the recently imposed sanctions against Russia hadn’t been lifted; the Mueller probe continued. On the other hand, Russia remained comparatively isolated, its economy still largely dependent on oil in the face of emerging green energy

Even so, when the president announced he was inviting Putin to Washington, more outrage ensued.

The whole week was a stark reminder that Russiagate has erupted into full blown hysteria. Terms like “act of war,” “treason,” “traitor,” and “active measures” have worked their way into the heart of mainstream journalism with the aid of vainglorious intelligence retirees, stoking the fires of xenophobia. When Center For American Progress head Neera Tanden called Deutsche Bank “Russia infested” last week, her followers barely batted an eye, apparently having become so numb to such rhetoric.

Speculation about the extent of Putin’s influence on American politics has run wild, edging closer and closer to the outer bounds of plausibility. To hear some tell it, Russiagate is a harrowing tale of palace intrigue where the heroes—the brave men and women of the post 9/11 security state—are waging war against a foe so devious and cunning, it has successfully undermined and infiltrated America’s democratic institutions as part of a plot going back decades which has culminated in the insidious use of Facebook memes.

New York Magazine published a Chait piece last week hypothesizing that Trump-Russia actually traces back to 1987 when businessman Trump visited the Soviet Union. It was supposedly during this trip that Russia got dirt on the future president, turning him from debaucherous New York socialite into the Manchurian candidate. The article came complete with a Glenn Beckesque visual aid for confused readers, making it hard not to imagine a fevered Chait with sweat beading on his high brow, holed up in a dark room with polaroids tacked on the walls, connected by red string.

“The media has treated the notion that Russia has personally compromised the president of the United States as something close to a kook theory,” Chait writes without the slightest sense of irony. Unsurprisingly, the outlandish piece earned him a top spot on MSNBC during which he had the distinct privilege of appearing behind a chyron that read, “Chait: Unlikely but possible that Trump has been Russian intel asset since 1987.”

Another absurdist theory claims that Justice Anthony Kennedy’s long anticipated and discussed retirement was really the result of shady business dealings between the president and his son, Justin Kennedy, who worked with Deutsche Bank at the time when it loaned Trump money. The younger Kennedy helped Trump launder Russian money through the bank, so the story goes. This conspiracy theory is what Tanden’s xenophobic tweet about Deutsche Bank was in reference to.

The connection was uncovered by the New York Times. However, Politifact and others debunked claims thoroughly. Even so, the conspiracy theory persists, highlighting the dangers of treating every incidental connection or development regarding Trump-Russia as potentially consequential.

And yet, for nearly two years, despite the fact that Trump-Russia doesn’t register as a priority issue for the overwhelming majority of Americans, the news cycle has been defined by the story. It’s wall-to-wall coverage comes at the expense of virtually everything else. While the media was fixated on the Helsinki summit and Trump’s blistering incompetence as a negotiator, millions of Americans were prioritizing their necessities for financial rationing. A recent study by United Way ALICE Project found that 51 million American households (43 percent of the country) were unable to afford necessities like transportation, rent, groceries, and childcare. That’s because most American workers live paycheck-to-paycheck and are in debt, unable to afford a $1000 emergency. As one might expect, there are hundreds of thousands of medical bankruptcies every year. Also largely overlooked are the stories of those American children sleeping in the street each night. A 2017 study from the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall research center found that 4.2 million young people experience homelessness every year. And it’s not just children. Homelessness is a national epidemic. The U.S. is the wealthiest nation in history, and its wealthy have never been richer.

Critics of the media’s Russia obsession have faced frequent attacks from its instigators. Last week, for example, journalist Glenn Greenwald, who recently visited Moscow to combat the “toxic” views now held by many Americans, was baselessly accused by MSNBC intelligence analyst Malcolm Nance, of being a Kremlin agent. MSNBC issued no apology, delivered no reprimand, and took no action.

In an email exchange, Greenwald had some choice words about Nance, dubbing him a “serial fabulist and fabricator” whose “brazen disregard for truth…would make J. Edgar Hoover jealous and impressed.”

“Obviously, any legitimate news outlet would not only issue a correction and apologize once they realize that one of their paid analysts is knowingly spreading lies,” he continued. “But MSNBC – featuring Brian Williams’ fictitious war stories and Joy Reid’s non-existent hacker – has made abundantly clear that getting caught red-handed, blatant lying, is no barrier to remaining on its payroll. Quite the contrary: provided such lies are directed at perceived adversaries of the Democratic Party, the lies will not only be permitted but rewarded…That’s because it’s a political arm of the Democratic Party and not an actual news organization.”

Even writing a piece like this necessarily invites the kind of reactionary criticism that obliterates all nuance. It becomes necessary to issue certain disclaimers, such as the fact that yes, clearly we should all be troubled by alleged Russian meddling in elections—from the Facebook meme-based variety to the potentially landscape-altering, like the hacking of campaign emails and state voter rolls (or funneling money into right wing lobby groups like the NRA). And turning domestically, it’s clear that Donald Trump doesn’t care one iota about the interference, since it’s all designed to benefit him and the Republican party. Additionally, the Russian government’s alleged chemical attacks on its enemies, some of them on foreign soil, can only be described as threatening, immoral behavior. It should be possible to acknowledge these truths and still be able to criticize the broader #Russiagate movement.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how the country arrived at this point. Russiagate enthusiasts have wrapped themselves in the flag, presenting their hyperbolic fervor as patriotic outrage over an attack on American sovereignty by a hostile foreign power. It’s certainly possible that many opinion makers are jingoistic enough to care about foreign meddling when the U.S. is on the receiving end, even if the impact of said meddling is indeterminable.

But perhaps the rise of Russophobia in America is rooted in a far more human tradition.

The 2016 election shook the country, and particularly the political class, to its core. It challenged long held beliefs, and unsettled matters that had been settled for decades. Sure, there were indications that populism was on the rise since 2010’s Tea Party wave, the 2011 teacher protests in Wisconsin, or the 2012 Occupy movement, but our memories are short. The idea that a foreign actor could have caused the historic upset has an undeniable appeal in its narrative simplicity, allowing order to be restored to the universe. It is unsurprising therefore, that many of the biggest Russiagate enthusiasts are those who staked their reputations and credibility on Clinton’s electability.

Of course, there is also the possibility that Russia mania goes no deeper than the pursuit of ratings, viewership, shares and clicks.

However we got here, it is abundantly clear that we must pull ourselves out. The nonstop panic and paranoia is only hurting us. It is undermining faith in the media by sucking the oxygen out of the news cycle. It is allowing a dangerously unqualified and unpredictable president to avoid tough conversations about the domestic problems that have gone unaddressed since he took office. It is breeding xenophobia and intolerance of dissent. Ironically, it is even threatening the Mueller probe, loading Trump with ammunition to cast doubt on its legitimacy. Within two weeks the details of Helsinki will be clouded from constant rehashing and reanalyzing. The thing people will remember is how much airtime the story got, and how dire the discussion sounded about the end of American democracy. And then they’ll go to work, live their lives, and find little has changed. When that happens, Trump will sound reasonable.

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