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Manafort and the Big Nothingburger

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

In a secretly taped video CNN’s Van Jones referred to the Trump-Russia story as a “big nothingburger.” Interesting that one of the network’s senior news commentators would say that, although not publicly, but privately to someone in an elevator. The cable network’s news director has apparently urged anchors to refer to the story of Russian interference in the U.S. election as something confirmed by all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies (which is in fact not quite true). Hence it must be supported by any reasonable person as settled fact. When Trump supporters (or others) point out that the same agencies asserted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda ties in 2003, they are told that many improvements have been made in intelligence collection since then. But intelligence is always susceptible to high-level manipulation.

Dick Cheney and his neocons obliged the intellect community to accept, or at least reference in official reports, what turned out to be sheer disinformation (in order to get their war). I believe Obama wanted a joint report alleging Russian intervention in the presidential election on Trump’s behalf, both to draw doubt upon Trump’s legitimacy (as Trump had sought to do to him), and to further vilify Putin.

But the Jan. 9 report summarizing the evidence for interference amounts to a argument that “the GRU used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and Wikileaks to release U.S. victim [Hillary] data,” which has been disputed by many cyber-experts, who point out that signatures can be faked; and denied by Julian Assange and Craig Murray of Wikileaks. Former Defense Intelligence Agency boss James Clapper told CNN that while be believed the report he thought it thinly argued. Indeed, the bulk of it focuses on the Russian state-supported RT network’s coverage of the election. As a regular RT viewer, I thought that part of the report tendentious, often mistaken, and often irrelevant. It gave the impression that RT was endorsing Trump while trashing Clinton. It did not mention the fact that show hosts and commentators such as Thom Hartman, Chris Hedges, Tyrel Ventura, Sean Stone, Tabetha Wallace, and Lee Camp were anti-Trump all along, some calling him a fascist on RT. Hell, Larry King has a program on RT.

My own recollection was that RT was initially inclined to depict Trump as a very strange sort of politician, but the network’s on-the-hour programming treated him with reasonable respect, even during the early primaries. I thought it contrasted with U.S. cable news networks that mocked him while endlessly promoting him—for free—by treating his every utterance as breaking news. The main point for the Russian press was the fact that Trump at least asked the question, “Why not be friends with Russia?” contrasting with Hillary’s view that Russia is an adversary that must be confronted in Ukraine and Syria. (Enthusiasm for Trump soon shriveled in Russia when it became clear the new president was powerless to improve relations, saddled as he was with accusations of not just Russian support but active collusion with that support.)

If a Russian politician were to run for office asking, “Why can’t we get along with the U.S.?” you can bet that the U.S. intel agencies and press would work hard to get him or her elected, as they did in 1986 when they supported Boris Yeltsin. The U.S. interferes in foreign elections all the time. How often is this reported in the mainstream press, to provide some comparative perspective?

The current charge of collusion centers around that meeting last year involving Jarod Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., and several Russians that may among other topics have addressed the issue of Russian dirt on Hillary. That’s not clear yet. But let’s say it did. If a French lawyer were to contact the campaign offering useful info the campaign, would it arouse such excitement? Surely not—because France is not an “adversary,” a country working against “U.S. interests” (like drawing Georgia and Ukraine into the anti-Russian NATO alliance, and toppling Assad in Syria).

And the “collusion” charge curiously involves the unusual investigation of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager from March to June 2016. The raid on his house this month by the FBI suggests that criminal charges are likely. But they appear to pertain to his work as a political consultant for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and trader in computer processors whose work ended before Trump announced his candidacy. (Yanukovych is often referred to “pro-Russian.” What this means in contemporary journalism is “not anti-Russian.”) Yanukovych was democratically elected in 2010 and toppled in 2014, after the U.S. had spent $ 5 billion to organize a coup in Kiev. Yanukovych had negotiated EU entry for Ukraine but changed his mind when he determined it would impose unacceptable austerity on his country. So he accepted a Russian offer instead. This makes him “pro-Russian.” But he is Ukrainian, in a country bordering and once part of Russia, with a large ethnic Russian population. What does Manfort’s assistance to him, however surrounded it might be by corruption, have to do with alleged Russian collusion with the Trump campaign?

Manafort resigned from the campaign in June 2016, due to criticism about his ties to “pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs.” Of course, oligarchs control the economies of most former Soviet states. That’s what happens when state property is suddenly privatized. There are anti-Russian Ukrainians too. Would Manafort have escaped blame if he had been working with them, on the right (pro-NATO) side? I suspect he will be convicted of some crime or another, but it will have nothing to do with Putin and Trump.

We keep hearing references to Trump campaign contacts with “the Russians.” As though such contact was legally prohibited and morally abhorrent. Brief conversations between Trump aides and the Russian ambassador (that sound to be very routine and polite) are being subject to stern scrutiny. The cable anchor (such as MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid and Rachel Maddow) lusts for impeachment—on the grounds of Trump-camp collusion with Russia to deny Hillary her right to rule.

The basic facts are: an airhead candidate surrounded by a strange array of advisors tending to a type of “America First” agenda rejecting “regime change” wars, but including hawks as well, vaguely articulated a desire to have better ties with Russia. This alone provoked Hillary’s repeated charge that he was “Putin’s puppet.” Once she had been defeated, the president, Deep State, and press soon settled on a strategy of bringing him down through that old, uncreative tactic of painting him as a pro-Russian traitor. You’d think that would have ended with the Cold War.

We keep getting told: He criticizes everybody (Mike McConnell, Bob Corker, Bill Sessions, the Australian, Mexican, and German leaders) except for Putin! In defense, to show he’s really no Russophile, he shuts down three consulates, to retaliate for Russian actions. These had responded to Obama’s expulsion of Russian diplomats, in response to alleged election interference Russia, which had shown restraint by not responding to the first expulsion of diplomats, is obliged to respond.

A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, based on a nothingbuger.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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