Analysis: US media’s obsession with 'Russia-gate' has let Trump play the victim

CommonSpace editor Ben Wray says the US media’s unrelenting focus on ‘Russia-gate’ has proven to be a gift for Trump after the publication of the Mueller report

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump has received a major political boost, 18 months ahead of his attempt at re-election in the 2020 US Presidential election.

Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report clears Trump of collusion with Russia to steal the 2016 election. While the ex-FBI chief explicitly does not exonerate the President of obstruction of justice, US Attorney General William Barr has concluded there is insufficient evidence to pursue an obstruction charge. In any case, obstruction is not collusion, and the report is crystal clear on that issue: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Predictably, the President has seized on this verdict to claim vindication and vow retribution on his political enemies, accusing them of being “very evil” and even “treasonous”. His ally, the Senate Judiciary chairman Lindsay Graham, said he would now “unpack the other side of the story” of the Russia investigation.

Trump, Graham and the Republican party establishment will now try to ride the wave of a counter-attack on the Russia investigation all the way to election day. They will want scalps in the press and among Democrats who led the offensive over collusion, and even if they don’t get them the mud that they pelt will be sufficient to energise the party’s base ahead of the elections, and shift the focus away from Trump’s failure to achieve his key policy aims.

READ MORE: Has Russia really hijacked US democracy with Donald Trump?

And that’s the really important point here: it didn’t have to be this way. There are so many ways to attack Trump - not least that the only serious policy change he has made is to cut taxes on the richest Americans - that it was entirely unnecessary to hype up ‘Russia-Trump collusion’, especially when the evidence for such a conspiracy was always so thin. 

Matt Taibbi has scrutinised how the US press has had another ‘WMD moment’ in excruciating detail here. Over a three year period, the press took the always-suspect and privately commissioned Steele dossier, by former British spy Christopher Steele, and - in collaboration with politicians and security services - added on poorly evidenced further information into an elaborate conspiracy. 

“The Steele report was the Magna Carta of #Russiagate. It provided the implied context for thousands of news stories to come, yet no journalist was ever able to confirm its most salacious allegations: the five year cultivation plan, the blackmail, the bribe from Sechin, the Prague trip, the pee romp, etc. In metaphorical terms, we were unable to independently produce Steele’s results in the lab. Failure to reckon with this corrupted the narrative from the start.”

The consequences of the groupthink which shaped the media’s false WMD consensus in the run-up to Iraq had, as everyone now knows, devastating real world consequences. But Taibbi rightly says that the mess the media has made of the Russia-Trump story - and it’s various McCarthyite outgrowths - is an even bigger political story, and thus will inevitably have very significant effects.

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Taibbi writes: “What retraction is possible for the Washington Post headline, ‘How will Democrats cope if Putin starts playing dirty tricks for Bernie Sanders (again)?’ How to reverse Rachel Maddow’s spiel about Russia perhaps shutting down heat across America during a cold wave? There’s no correction for McCarthyism and fearmongering.

“This ultimately will be the endgame of the Russia charade. They will almost certainly never find anything like the wild charges and Manchurian Candidate theories elucidated in the Steele report. But the years of panic over the events of 2016 will lead to radical changes in everything from press regulation to foreign policy, just as the WMD canard led to torture, warrantless surveillance, rendition, drone assassination, secret budgets and open-ended, undeclared wars from Somalia to Niger to Syria. The screw-ups will be forgotten, but accelerated vigilance will remain.”

And of course millions of Americans will once again have it reaffirmed to them that the media can’t be trusted - Trump’s ‘fake news’ propaganda will be doubly potent now. The media have played right into his hands. 

New York Times journalist Peter Baker hinted at some contrition, or at least an awareness of the problem the press has put itself in: “Have journalists connected too many dots that do not really add up?”

READ MORE: Media Rebuttal: The #YellowVests movement is not 'nihilism'

Taibbi identifies The Guardian as a contributor to some of the shoddy reporting on collusion, which gave even more shoddy answers when Taibbi posed questions to the paper about it. And it’s editorial on Mueller’s report showed none of the self-awareness of Baker’s piece. 

After trying to keep the collusion argument alive (if the report is published in full it could “be further prosecuted in the court of public opinion” apparently), the Guardian admits lessons have to be learned, but only for the Democrats.

“Mr Mueller was no magician; he could not make Mr Trump vanish. Yet Democrats thought he might. Mr Trump can only be defeated when Democrats understand why he won.” 

Why did he win? 

“The Trump administration’s dizzying number of conflicts of interest have yet to be held to account. Political scientists, such as Joe Uscinki, note that Mr Trump built a coalition by appealing more to conspiracy theories than to partisanship.”

This is of course true, but The Guardian shows an amazing lack of cognisance about the media’s role. The press is supposed to hold Trump to account on its conflicts of interest. Instead it has reinforced Trump’s conspiracy theories by creating their own. It also avoids the bigger issue: Trump won because of systemic problems in American capitalism and its political system, which he exploited fears about and filled a vacuum left by Hilary Clinton’s status quo campaign. 

This gets to the heart of the issue. The media have treated the Donald as an alien force, a monster who couldn’t possibly emerge from within the American system. That lead them to the traditional Russian bogeyman, and to seek to portray Trump as a foreign agent. The reality that needs to be faced is Trump is an all-American monster, it’s the system that’s the problem.

Picture courtesy of Scott97006

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