Its perpetrators, not Putin or Trump, "attacked American democracy.”
The very few of us who publicly challenged and deplored Russiagate allegations against candidate and then President Donald Trump from the time they first began to appear in mid-2016 should not gloat or rejoice over the US Attorney General’s summary of Robert S. Mueller’s key finding: "The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election.” (On the other hand, those of us repeatedly slurred as Trump and/or Putin "apologists” might feel some vindication.)
But what about the legions of high-ranking intelligence officials, politicians, editorial writers, television producers, and other opinion-makers, and their eager media outlets that perpetuated, inflated, and prolonged this unprecedented political scandal in American history—those who did not stop short of accusing the president of the United States of being a Kremlin "agent,” "asset,” "puppet,” "Manchurian candidate,” and who characterized his conduct and policies as "treasonous”? (These and other examples are cited in my book War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate, and in a recent piece by Paul Starobin in City Journal.) Will they now apologize, as decency requires, or, more importantly, explain their motives so that we might understand and avoid another such national trauma?
Shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, in 1985, he released a banned film, Repentance, that explored the underlying institutional, ideological, and personal dynamics of Stalinism. The film set off a nationwide media trial and condemnation of that murderous era. Though Russiagate has generated in America some Soviet-like practices and ruined a number of lives and reputations, it is, of course, nothing even remotely comparable to the Soviet Stalinist experience. By comparison, therefore, some introspective repentance on the part of Russiagate perpetuators should not be too much to ask. But as I foresaw well before the summary of Mueller’s "Russia investigation” appeared, there is unlikely to be much, if any. Too many personal and organizational interests are too deeply invested in Russiagate. Not surprisingly, leading perpetrators instead immediately met the summary with a torrent of denials, goal-post shifts, obfuscations, and calls for more Russiagate "investigations.” Joy Reid of MSNBC, which has been a citadel of Russiagate allegations along with CNN, even suggested that Mueller and Attorney General William Barr were themselves engaged in "a cover-up.”
Contrary to a number of major media outlets, from Bloomberg News to The Wall Street Journal, nor does Mueller’s exculpatory finding actually mean that "Russiagate…is dead” and indeed that "it expired in an instant.” Such conclusions reveal a lack of historical and political understanding. Nearly three years of Russiagate’s toxic allegations have entered the American political-media elite bloodstream, and they almost certainly will reappear again and again in one form of another.
This is an exceedingly grave danger, because the real costs of Russiagate are not the estimated $25–40 million spent on the Mueller investigation but the corrosive damage it has already done to the institutions of American democracy—damage done not by an alleged "Trump-Putin axis” but by Russsigate’s perpetrators themselves. Having examined this collateral damage in my recently published book War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate, I will only note them here.
§ Clamorous allegations that the Kremlin "attacked our elections” and thereby put Trump in the White House, despite the lack of any evidence, cast doubt on the legitimacy of American elections everywhere—national, state, and local. If true, or even suspected, how can voters have confidence in the electoral foundations of American democracy? Persistent demands to "secure our elections from hostile powers”— a politically and financially profitable mania, it seems—can only further abet and perpetuate declining confidence in the entire electoral process. Still more, if some crude Russian social-media outputs could so dupe voters, what does this tell us about what US elites, which originated these allegations, really think of those voters, of the American people?
§ Defamatory Russsiagate allegations that Trump was a "Kremlin puppet” and thus "illegitimate” were aimed at the president but hit the presidency itself, degrading the institution, bringing it under suspicion, casting doubt on its legitimacy. And if an "agent of a hostile foreign power” could occupy the White House once, a "Manchurian candidate,” why not again? Will Republicans be able to resist making such allegations against a future Democratic president? In any event, Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign manager, Robby Mook, has already told us that there will be a "next time.”
§ Mainstream media are, of course, a foundational institution of American democracy, especially national ones, newspapers and television, with immense influence inside the Beltway and, in ramifying synergic ways, throughout the country. Their Russiagate media malpractice, as I have termed it, may have been the worst such episode in modern American history. No mainstream media did anything to expose, for example, two crucial and fraudulent Russiagate documents—the so-called Steele Dossier and the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment—but instead relied heavily on them for their own narratives. Little more need be said here about this institutional self-degradation. Glenn Greenwald and a few others followed and exposed it throughout, and now Matt Taibbi has given us a meticulously documented account of that systematic malpractice, concluding that Mueller’s failure to confirm the media’s Russiagate allegations "is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.”
Nor, it must be added, was this entirely inadvertent or accidental. On August 8, 2016, the trend-setting New York Times published on its front page an astonishing editorial manifesto by its media critic. Asking whether "normal standards” should apply to candidate Trump, he explained that they should not: "You have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century.” Let others decide whether this Times proclamation unleashed the highly selective, unbalanced, questionably factual "journalism” that has so degraded Russiagate media or instead the publication sought to justify what was already underway. In either case, this remarkable—and ramifying—Timesrejection of its own professed standards should not be forgotten. Almost equally remarkable and lamentable, we learn that even now, after Mueller’s finding is known, top executives of the Times and other leading Russiagate media outlets, including The Washington Post and CNN, "have no regrets.”
§ For better or worse, America has a two-party political system, which means that the Democratic Party is also a foundational institution. Little more also need be pointed out regarding its self-degrading role in the Russiagate fraud. Leading members of the party initiated, inflated, and prolonged it. They did nothing to prevent inquisitors like Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from becoming the cable-news face of the party. Or to rein in or disassociate the party from the outlandish excesses of "The Resistance.” With very few exceptions, elected and other leading Democrats did nothing to stop—and therefore further abetted—the institutional damage being done by Russiagate allegations. As for Mueller’s finding,the party’s virtual network, MSNBC, remains undeterred. Rachael Maddow continues to hype "the underlying reality that Russia did in fact attack us.” By any reasonable definition of "attack,” no, it did not, and scarcely any allegation could be more recklessly warmongering, a perception the Democratic Party will for this and other Russiagate commissions have to endure, or not. (When Mueller’s full report is published, we will see if he too indulged in this dangerous absurdity. A few passages in the summary suggest he might have done so.)
§ Finally, but potentially not least, the new Cold War with Russia has itself become an institution pervading American political, economic, media, and cultural life. Russiagate has made it more dangerous, more fraught with actual war, than the Cold War we survived, as I explain in War with Russia?Recall only that Russiagate allegations further demonized "Putin’s Russia,” thwarted Trump’s necessary attempts to "cooperate with Russia” as somehow "treasonous,” criminalized détente thinking and "inappropriate contacts with Russia”—in short, policies and practices that previously helped to avert nuclear war. Meanwhile, the Russiagate spectacle has caused many ordinary Russians who once admired America to now be "derisive and scornful” toward our political life.
The scarce good news it is that some Russian officials hope Mueller’s Russiagate exoneration of Trump will enable the president to resume his attempts to cooperate with Moscow. The bad institutional news is that Congress has invited, on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s initiative, NATO’s secretary general to address it on April 3. That figurehead has announced a renewed attempt to bring the former Soviet republic of Georgia into the military alliance. The last such attempt led to the US-Russian proxy war in Georgia in 2008. When it was tried in Ukraine in 2013, it produced the still ongoing Ukrainian civil and proxy war.
The editor of The New Yorker, itself an ardent Russiagate publication, askswhether "the moral and material corruption [Trump] has inflicted will be with us for a long while.” Perhaps. But the institutional costs of Russiagate are likely to be with us for even longer.
This commentary is based on Stephen F. Cohen’s most recently weekly discussion with the host of The John Batchelor Show. Now in their fifth year, previous installments are at TheNation.com.