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Propaganda and Collusion in the Trump-Russia Affair, Part 1
Some tried to gaslight us. Others missed what was important.
To Russiagate believers, the Trump campaign plainly colluded with Russia. To detractors, the whole idea of collusion was a wild conspiracy theory born of wishful thinking.
The believers, it turns out, were correct. Only they tended to miss the most important parts of the story.
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This is the first entry in a multipart series on Russiagate. Drawing largely from public filings by official investigative bodies, it aims to pull together some of the most critical pieces of the affair. These pieces, we will see, have been overlooked by most commentators, including both skeptics and proponents of the collusion theory.
In the process, we will debunk many of the arguments put forth by Russia apologists and professional contrarians. From the start, these people dismissed claims of collusion as a liberal fairy tale devoid of substance.
As usual, I will be concentrating not on pundits of the right, whose demented rantings are too dumb to merit consideration, but rather on certain (ostensibly) leftwing commentators. The latter actually put some effort into their gaslighting and might thereby manage to sway otherwise reasonable people.
Meet the Russiagate deniers
We will be looking at two “leftwing” pundits, in particular: Matt Taibbi and Aaron Maté. For this series is not only about key facets of Russiagate others have missed; it is also a window into the disingenuousness and cluelessness of these two prominent deniers.
Taibbi routinely gloats that neither the feds nor media turned up a shred of evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. In 2019, for example, he declared that “Russiagate is this generation’s WMD” and, in 2021, that it should be “dead as a serious news story.”
Like Taibbi, Aaron Maté has written voluminously on Russiagate. He too delights in crowing over the supposed failures by proponents of the collusion narrative to produce anything of substance, despite years of speculation and official investigations.
Taibbi and Maté go well beyond noting that authorities failed to criminally charge anyone with collusion-related crimes. Instead, they assert, the Trump-Russia story itself was a giant nothingburger lacking any substantive findings whatsoever, criminal or otherwise.
Of course, they are correct to note that nobody in Trump’s orbit was ever charged with criminally conspiring with Russia. But their broader claim that official investigations turned up nothing that should concern the public? That, I intend to show, is bullshit.
First, let me make clear what this series does not attempt to do. It does not try to prove criminal misconduct by the Trump campaign. Nor does it pass judgment on the legality of the Department of Justice’s actions in the course of its criminal investigation.
That’s because I’m not qualified to comment on the legal aspects of Russiagate (ahem, Messrs. Maté and Taibbi?). But I know enough about Russia and possess the requisite common sense to look at the facts and suggest either “yeah, that’s concerning” or “no, it is not.”
In fact, both Maté and Taibbi take the fact that the feds opted for mere obstruction-related charges over collusion-related ones to try and say “shut up, libtards; nothing to see here.” But that framing is a deliberate distortion.
As anyone with a passing familiarity with the American justice system can tell you, the law imposes justifiably onerous requirements for convicting defendants of actual crimes. But here in the real world, we do not need criminal proof to conclude there’s some shady shit going on.
Aside from observing that nobody was charged with criminal conspiracy, Taibbi and Maté take much pleasure in pointing out the numerous examples of atrocious Russiagate reporting by the mainstream press. It is true: A fair amount of that reporting turned out to be bunk.
So, yes, nobody was charged, much less convicted, of conspiring with Russia. And, yes, more than a few news stories alleging Trump-Russia collusion were revealed to be false. But does that vindicate collusion-deniers when they claim there’s no “there” there? It does not.
Why Volume 5 of the Senate report is important
So let us examine the evidence for ourselves. In doing so, we will draw primarily from Volume 5 of the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Upon its release in August 2020, Volume 5 prompted much commentary from both Russiagate-believers and deniers. Most of that commentary, I think, has tended to focus on the wrong things. A focus on the right ones, I will argue, shows serious wrongdoing by the Trump campaign.
In a statement to Maté, Sen. Jim Risch, one of the Republican members of the committee, took issue “with the report’s ‘assessment’ [of collusion], as there was no factual substantiation of it.” Maté describes Risch as “the lone Senator to vote against the committee’s findings.” That’s misleading. There was, to my knowledge, no “vote” on the findings. What he did was submit, along with other GOP committee members, an addendum voicing certain objections.
And what was the nature of those objections? Did the GOP members take issue with any of the specific facts the report documented? They did not. What they actually objected to was the report’s failure to explicitly conclude, on the basis of the facts therein, that there was “no collusion.”
There is, in fact, an excellent reason why the report issued no such conclusion, a reason neither Risch nor Maté bothered to mention. That is, it did not issue any conclusions at all, only findings of fact. And the committee members of both parties, including Risch and his GOP colleagues, joined in those findings of fact.
As we will see, these facts show that Trump and his allies colluded with the Kremlin—or, at the very least, tried their damnedest to do so.
The choice on the committee’s part to publish only findings of fact without drawing explicit conclusions from those facts was quite deliberate. On the one hand, it allowed the Republican members to preserve a shred of their integrity. On the other, it liberated them from having to acknowledge outright that the leader of their little cult along with his minions are traitors to their country.
This is one of the things that makes the Senate report so valuable. Not only is it the most comprehensive public summation of the evidence to date, its bipartisan authorship lends it the credibility it would lack had it merely been a Democratic Party exercise.
Remember, this was 2020. The Republican Senators in question did not merely serve on the committee; they led it. If anyone had an interest in quashing evidence of collusion, it was them. Yet their report does contain evidence of collusion—a staggering amount, in fact. So we are going to look at the evidence for ourselves and draw our own conclusions.
As a side note, while I will rely mostly on vol. 5 of the Senate report, I will occasionally reference other official filings including the Mueller report, federal sentencing memorandums, and the like.
After the storm, the gaslighting
The next two installments will deal with the explosive claim that Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager until August 2016, met regularly during the campaign with an alleged Russian intelligence operative named Konstantin Kilimnik.
Manafort and Kilimnik were longtime business partners who worked together on consulting projects for clients in Russia and Ukraine. Their specialty, in essence, was sanitizing the reputations of despicable kleptocrats and human rights-abusers.
Manafort spent his entire career working for some of the world’s worst scumbags—dictators like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire as well as other heinous characters such as Angolan rebel commander Jonas Savimbi.
But by 2004, Manafort had turned his attention to Russia and Ukraine. While there, he joined up with Kilimnik, and the two proceeded to work on projects for local oligarchs and politicians.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, along with numerous U.S. federal law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, assert that Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer or at the very least has ties to Russian intelligence.
The Senate report further claims that, during the 2016 campaign, Manafort passed sensitive internal campaign polling data to Kilimnik. But it could not determine the actual nature of this material since it had been deleted or otherwise remained beyond their reach.
After vol. 5 was released, a media storm erupted over the revelation of collusion between Manafort and Kilimnik. Many were alarmed by the finding that the head of a U.S. presidential campaign passed internal campaign data to an alleged Russian intelligence operative and may have thereby enabled Russian interference on Trump’s behalf. Eventually, in April 2021, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Kilimnik, describing him as an agent of Russian intelligence who interfered in the 2016 election.
All this proved too much for Taibbi and Maté. After the Treasury’s announcement, they rushed to the scene to do damage control, reaching out to Kilimnik and interviewing him. As we will see, both interviews were desperate and dishonest.
For years, the two had ridiculed anyone who took claims of Trump-Russia collusion seriously. But now we had an official report—by a GOP-led Senate committee, no less—making precisely that claim. They had to do something.
Taibbi and Maté’s interviews focus on whether and how Kilimnik is connected to Russian intelligence. Both use sleights of hand to try and exonerate him of such charges. But aside from the spy issue, we will examine the numerous other dubious assertions Kilimnik makes, assertions Taibbi and Maté mostly accept at face-value with little attempt to verify them.
In part 4, I’m actually going to argue that it does not matter much whether Konstantin Kilimnik was working for Russian intelligence or what information Manafort passed to him. In any event, these are things we cannot know for sure from the Senate report.
What does matter, and what we can know from the report, is who Manafort and Kilimnik acknowledged working for. But for now, I want to focus on Taibbi and Maté’s interviews with Kilimnik, if only because it exposes their rank dishonesty and general cluelessness.
So this is what we will cover in the next two installments. After that, we will get into the meat of the actual collusion, or attempted collusion, documented in the report.
Other entries in this series:
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