Robert Mueller, the media and the "Russia skeptics": Who's right? As usual, probably no one

Between MSNBC's credulous conspiracy theories and Glenn Greenwald's scathing indictment, did anyone get it right?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 31, 2019 2:36PM (EDT)

Glenn Greenwald; Robert Mueller; Rachel Maddow (AP/Getty/Salon)
Glenn Greenwald; Robert Mueller; Rachel Maddow (AP/Getty/Salon)

It’s not all that surprising, I think, that Robert Mueller has filed his report to the Justice Department on whether President Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russians and we don’t really know what’s in it. What’s perhaps more surprising is that Mueller’s unread report has become yet another symbolic black box in a world that seems full of them, a mysterious cipher that represents everything we don’t know, don’t understand and don’t agree on — and perhaps on some broader plane the difficulty of knowing anything for sure, amid the existential disorder of American democracy.

That’s too much weight to carry, no doubt. I’m as curious to read Mueller’s full report as the next person, but I hold out no hope that it will resolve all unanswered questions about the nature of Donald Trump and what really happened in the 2016 election. We can say two contradictory things that are both true: Those questions are unanswerable, and they’re unanswerable because everyone thinks they already know the answers. Trump’s famous remark that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without alienating his supporters has a characteristic dumbass profundity — and also has much wider applicability than it seems. Most of us, perhaps nearly all of us, are in a similar predicament to Trump’s fans, seeing him stand over a bleeding corpse outside Bergdorf’s: Evidence is not going to change our minds.

In the wake of Mueller’s apparent finding that there was no criminal conspiracy between Trump and the Russians — yes, all we have is Attorney General Bill Barr’s four-page summary, but I am not going down the rabbit hole of suggesting that Barr has dramatically misrepresented Mueller’s conclusions — this has been a bonanza week for the tribe of “Russia skeptics” on the left. By that term I mean those who believe that elaborate conspiracy theories about Trump, the Russians and the 2016 election, and an accompanying mystical reverence for Robert Mueller and his sacred task, were either completely delusional or a waste of time (or both).

Perhaps the leading Russia skeptics in the media are Intercept editor and former Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald and Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, although there are certainly others. I have a cordial relationship with Greenwald (although I don't know him well), who recently told Democracy Now! that mainstream had gotten the Russia story "radically, fundamentally and deliberately wrong ... in a very dangerous way."

As anyone who follows Greenwald on Twitter knows, he can be thin-skinned and hot-tempered, and sometimes engages in public disputes he might be better off avoiding. On the other hand, I have no idea how I would respond if I were constantly accused of being a corrupt and treasonous troll, or a full-on paid agent of the Kremlin, either by people acting in bad faith or by their fans and followers. If you find Greenwald's often strident opinions unpalatable, fair enough. That doesn't make him a Trumper or a Russian spy.

I would count myself as a “moderate” Russia skeptic, which quite likely means a person holding an untenable position, and unquestionably means a person who is massively irritating to all sides. I have occasionally written things that got me attacked on social media as a fellow traveler or apologist for Vladimir Putin’s sinister agenda, but nothing like Taibbi or Greenwald.

Arrayed against them, of course, have been the “Russia alarmists” of the mainstream media, led by Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes of MSNBC, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine and an army of establishmentarian talking heads, including former CIA director John Brennan, former director of national intelligence James Clapper and numerous others. Following their lead, if more cautiously and with more attention to detail, have been the teams of reporters and editors at the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere, who have consistently produced defensible but arguably slanted reporting along the lines of “beneath all this smoke, there’s got to be a fire.”

One factor driving all this, naturally enough, has been clicks and ratings. I won’t pretend for a second that Salon has been immune. I believe and hope we have aired various sides of the argument and have avoided flat-out trolling. There's no point in denying that the subject has been reader catnip, and we are after all in the business of attracting readers.

The American public at large is only moderately interested in the Russia scandal: No matter what Republicans may wish to claim right now, it played little role in the Democrats’ midterm victory of 2018, and was never likely to be a major factor in the 2020 presidential campaign. But for a specific quadrant of educated, metropolitan liberals — those people most likely to watch Maddow’s show, listen to NPR and read the Times (and Salon) — it has been the focus of almost addictive fascination.

Of course I am generalizing, but those people were overwhelmingly likely to have voted for Hillary Clinton, to have been shocked and dismayed by the outcome of that election, and to suspect that Trump’s victory was illegitimate — not merely because of the flukish imbalance between the national popular vote and the anachronistic Electoral College, but because of unseen skullduggery below the surface or behind the scenes.

I have never argued that some degree of unseen skullduggery did not happen. It clearly did. But whether it made much difference or was particularly unusual is quite another matter. If we return to an oft-neglected journalistic maxim formulated decades ago by Joan Didion — the first task is to “observe the observable” — there’s a glaringly obvious fact in the 2016 election returns that Russiagate enthusiasts tend to avoid. If you subtract California alone from the results, Trump won the popular vote; Clinton’s margin in that one state was greater than her overall national margin. If you subtract the four most Democratic large states in the nation (adding New York, Illinois and Massachusetts), Trump won the other 46 states by roughly five million votes. The “Big Sort,” the idea that America has geographically and demographically divided itself, with politically toxic results, is not a fiction.

I have immense respect for Greenwald and Taibbi and other prominent Russia skeptics for sticking to their guns in the face of withering return fire. I believe they were more right than wrong overall, and that Russia alarmists like Maddow or Malcolm Nance veered dangerously close to Alex Jones or QAnon territory by hinting at vast, dark webs of conspiracy that hero-daddy-warrior Bob Mueller would one day lay before us, next to the severed head of the Jabberwock.

As Taibbi observed in an interview this weekend with Common Dreams (alongside Nation contributor Aaron Maté, another leading skeptic), he argued shortly after Trump’s inauguration that the Russia scandal was “a minefield for the Democratic Party and particularly for journalists, because Trump had made it such an important part of his message that journalists were out to get him. … And to me it seemed the only way we could possibly lose with the public in a contest with someone like Trump is if we completely abdicated the standards of the profession and did what he accused us of doing, which would be politicizing our jobs and using trumped-up evidence to try to make him look bad.”

This is obviously an important conversation to have within our profession. I think Taibbi’s indictment of the press is overly broad, and would argue that the full picture of how journalists reacted to the aftermath of Trump’s unexpected victory, and then the agonizingly slow unfolding of the scandals surrounding the Trump presidency, is exceedingly complicated. Even more important, I think, is the question of how the Russia scandal has been used to turn American political discourse upside down, turning many liberals into fans of the FBI and the CIA and leading them to avoid more difficult questions about U.S. foreign policy, the national security state and the transnational institutions of the “neoliberal” order. Taibbi discussed that too, saying he sees a “dark logic” at work behind Russiagate:

If you saw what happened in 2016, the political situation was that the ruling neoliberal consensus was under fire from all sides, from radical right movements both in the United States and in Europe; from leftist movements, both in the United States and Europe. The overwhelming voter sentiment everywhere had to do with the rejection of the international global consensus. You saw votes like Brexit, a complete repudiation of a number of things. But Russiagate as a political solution, as a response to that electoral phenomenon, has been extraordinarily effective. Because what it’s done is it’s completely changed the attitude of a huge portion of the population, which now sees the international security services, the global consensus, as the only saviors who are going to rescue them from the evil Trump. And therefore, we have to pursue this case and celebrate authoritarianism and celebrate the FBI and CIA and their heroism, and the European Union and NATO. This story has had some benefit from a propaganda perspective as well.

I’ve made a related case that the liberal fantasy of seeing Trump impeached, convicted and dragged from the White House in irons reflected a childlike desire to make the 2016 election un-happen, and to return to the supposedly normal politics of America under Barack Obama (which were not normal at all). I hope and believe that Taibbi doesn’t think the “dark logic” represents a conscious and deliberate elite strategy, or what a certain person we know might describe as a “deep state” conspiracy.

But the really important part, I believe, is not to keep a scorecard of who’s right and who’s wrong, but to recognize that nobody is 100 percent right about any of this. In the famous words of screenwriter William Goldman, nobody knows anything. The tapestry of historical fragments and patterns that brought us here, to 2019 and President Donald Trump and what I perceive as a global crisis of democratic legitimacy, has so many seen and unseen threads that scholars of the future — assuming there will be a future, not to mention with scholars in it — will not quite be sure what happened a hundred years from now.

There has never been any public evidence to suggest a coordinated criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and the Russians in 2016. Was there a bit of a wink-nod arrangement, and an obvious confluence of interests? Yes, and a few laws were broken, of the penny-ante variety, by people like Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos. But it was always naïve to believe that Mueller would unveil some previously unknown smoking gun that unlocked the whole puzzle. Whatever we eventually learn (or do not learn) from the Mueller report, the skeptics are correct that liberal true believers have been left weeping at the altar, and the “Mueller industrial complex” that produced so many books and articles and breathless “breaking news” alerts now has to pull up stakes and move on.

On the other hand, it was certainly conceivable that Mueller would go deeper into Trump’s long and murky history of corrupt or dubious business practices than he evidently did, and might uncover damning evidence about the president’s relationships with Russian oligarchs and criminals, who are unquestionably allied with the Putin regime. Those things -- explored over the years, for instance, by investigative reporter David Cay Johnston -- long predate the 2016 campaign and may relate to it only distantly or indirectly, or perhaps not at all.

Furthermore, it is obvious to everyone on the planet that Trump has repeatedly sought to obstruct justice from the Oval Office, and that his distinctly peculiar relationship with Vladimir Putin is constrained by unknown or unseen factors. Mueller’s investigation didn’t encompass the latter question at all, and his refusal to render a verdict on the former almost certainly reflects the corrosive, legalistic debates about the limits of executive power and whether a president can be prosecuted over such things.

Where does that leave us? Still in the dark, I’m afraid: Consumed by questions and confronting a report we haven’t read that probably won’t answer them. Did Rachel Maddow and her ilk go way too far in ginning up a seductive conspiracy theory that played into the hopeful, narcissistic yearnings of too many liberals? Yes. Have the skeptics declared premature vindication and issued an overly sweeping indictment of the media, when we still don’t know enough about Donald Trump’s evident corruption and his numerous connections to sleazy characters around the world, Russian and otherwise? Yes. Are we any closer to a clear idea of how to defeat Trump and what he represents, and how to begin reclaiming democracy? I almost don’t want to answer that. I don’t know.




By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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