The ink was barely dry on the first indictments and pleading from special counsel Robert Mueller, and the country was already hearing two vastly different accounts of what’s at stake, what it means and where we go from here.
Those seeing the U.S. as a nation of laws saw the first tangible signs that Mueller is making real headway proving the Trump campaign sought to engage Russia in its anti-Hillary Clinton efforts, and how top campaign officials had no hesitation to break U.S. laws to profit from advising nations with pro-Russia ties. The indictment of Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his business partner, Rick Gates, for money laundering and tax evasion, was not exactly a surprise. But the guilty plea from former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, which cited campaign documents exploring Russian help to obtain “dirt” on Clinton via stolen emails, was blockbuster material.
That Mueller had kept the Papadopoulos plea, dated October 5, secret for weeks was remarkable, given how leak-ridden Washington is. Analysts quickly noted that the guilty plea blows apart every claim by Trump’s defenders that their side sought no help from Russia. Raw Story noted that Papadopoulos worked under Jeff Sessions during the 2016 campaign, raising questions about what Sessions knew. AlterNet cited investigative reporting tying Wilbur Ross — now commerce secretary — to the biggest bank in Cyprus, where Russian oligarchs dominate depositors and the country where Manafort laundered millions.
It was “very significant” how much detail was cited in Mueller’s first indictments, a federal public defender told AlterNet, as, “they usually say as little as possible.” He noted that the absence of references to Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser at the White House and on the campaign, who also apparently did not report foreign income, “suggests he [Flynn] may be cooperating.”
Mueller’s opening moves suggest his investigation has entered the territory Trump most feared: his business deals with wealthy Russians investing in Trump properties in the U.S., and his campaign’s openness to having Russian help to beat Clinton.
But if Monday’s indictments and pleadings are a hopeful sign for Americans who did not vote for Trump, who have become tired of his persona and policies, or who simply despise him and all he stands for, then the opposite dynamic was unfurling among Americans in red-state America and those who predominantly watch pro-GOP media.
On the right, defending Trump, is White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who repeatedly dismissed the indictments and pleadings, saying their references to top campaign aides exploring Russian help—as captured in emails explicitly raising that prospect — were irrelevant, a trifle, a coincidence, and a distraction from what Mueller should be investigating: Hillary Clinton. Her remarks came after a weekend when the right-wing press launched preemptive attacks. Fox News and the New York Post, both owned by Rupert Murdoch, called for Mueller’s resignation. Sanders did not go that far, but repeatedly said with a straight face that whatever was in the indictments had nothing to do with Trump’s campaign.
“Look, today’s announcement [from Mueller] has nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the president’s campaign or campaign activity. The real collusion scandal, as we’ve said several times before, has everything to do with the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS and Russia,” Sanders said, citing that campaign’s opposition research in her response to the daily press briefing’s opening question. “There’s clear evidence of the Clinton campaign colluding with Russian intelligence to spread disinformation and smear the president to influence the election. We’ve been saying from day one there has been no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and nothing in the indictment today changes that at all.”
These talking points were quickly echoed on Steve Bannon’s Breitbart.com and Fox News, which were the top-trafficking websites for Republican voters in the run-up to the 2016 election. Those websites also featured breaking news about longtime Democrat-connected lobbyist Tony Podesta — brother of Clinton’s campaign chair — resigning from his firm because he made money from some of the same Ukraine deals where Manafort apparently laundered his profits. The right-wing websites also featured more accusations of sexual harassment in Hollywood circles, Obama’s ties to Clinton’s campaign effort — in short, anything to underscore the right’s vitriol for Democrats and Trump critics.
At the White House press briefing, reporters repeatedly pushed back, saying, essentially, wait a minute, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty and agreed that the facts proved he was in touch with Russians on behalf of the Trump campaign to obtain stolen Clinton emails. Sanders pretended none of this was real, or really mattered, or meant anything.
Here’s one exchange from a White House-issued transcript:
Question: But the George Papadopoulos agreement is about the campaign. It is specifically about the campaign —
Sanders: It has nothing to do with the activities of the campaign. It has to do with his failure to tell the truth. That doesn’t have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign's activities.
Question: But it is the clearest evidence yet of ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials so —
Sanders: Again, there are no activities or official capacity in which the Trump campaign was engaged in any of these activities. Most of them took place well before the campaign ever even existed.
For the record, Papadopoulos’ plea agreement lays out a timeline that was well into the campaign.
Here’s another typical exchange from Monday’s press briefing:
Question: What explains the campaign’s later involvement with those associated with the Russian government — or said they were — to get dirt on Hillary Clinton later in the campaign? Are these things — are they coincidental?
Sanders: We’ve addressed that. They took one meeting. Nothing came of it. No, I don’t believe so.
Question: Does that indicate a pattern of trying to obtain that information from that government?
Sanders: A pattern of getting information about your opponent? No.
Question: From a hostile government?
Sanders: The big difference here is you have a meeting that took place versus millions of dollars being sent to create fake information to actually influence the election. You compare those two, those are apples and oranges.
Where Are We Now?
These exchanges between the press, which is trained to treat legal pleadings as statements of fact, and a White House and right-wing media that pretend those facts are fabricated and irrelevant, are very dangerous. The best reporters — indeed, most conscientious citizens — don’t just look for gaps between theories or conspiracies and realities; they distinguish between what people claim to be and what they really are.
The assertions by Trump defenders like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the deflections by right-wing media focusing on other seemingly liberal scandals (such as Podesta’s resignation, or sexual abuse in Hollywood) are intended to fortify the delusions of partisan believers. They’re part of a pattern of presenting false equivalencies to undermine the distinctions between different serious issues. This is very dangerous because as Mueller’s investigation goes on, you can be sure the attacks will increase.
Last weekend saw Murdoch outlets attack Mueller for being an overzealous prosecutor and for calling a “friend"—former FBI Director James Comey — as a prosecution witness. Never mind that it hasn’t happened yet.
Mueller’s opening indictments underscore that America is split between voters who are going to believe what’s presented in court and those who will reject it as fantasy. On Monday, the Zogby Poll, by longtime pollster Jim Zogby, found Trump’s national approval rating was at 44 percent — a somewhat higher figure than other recent polls. Zogby reported that, “two in five voters are ‘silent Trump supporters.’”
That means a lot of Americans don’t believe Mueller or the facts, and do believe Huckabee Sanders and her right-wing echo chamber, and cannot break with the partisan herd to recognize its delusions. They think Trump is earning their allegiance, and do not distinguish between what he claims to be and what he really is. This is the very definition of dangerous times.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).