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Manafort News: a Blockbuster or Nothingburger?

I like to watch the top-of-the-hour news on RT, CNN and MSNBC, just to compare how the news directors select and prioritize the stories.

Russian News

RT reports a lot on the Middle East, which as you know is much closer to Russia than to the U.S. These days it reports regularly on the Syrian army’s victories again ISIL and al-Nusra, while the U.S. media trends to ignore them. (It was reporting daily on Aleppo for awhile, mainly to accuse the Russians and their allies of savage bombing; recall how MSNBC anchor Kate Balduan used the photo of the shell-shocked, bloodied Syrian boy Omran, whom she tearfully depicted as a victim of the regime—which her parents, who praised the army, actually supports. After the city was fully liberated from the al-Nusra forces and their allies, the U.S. media lost interest. RT pointed out the hypocrisy of the U.S. media hyping the civilian deaths in Aleppo while downplaying those in the equally brutal battle for Mosul in Iraq, directed by the U.S.)

RT reports a good deal more on Europe than the U.S. channels. That makes since; it borders Europe, indeed constitutes a large chunk of the geographer’s continent. RT likes to show footage of demonstrations by workers, students, farmers, anti-austerity activists, ant-immigration activists, and others giving the impression of a continent in turmoil. It pays close attention to politics and elections, and gives respectful treatment to far-right nationalist candidates like Geert Willders, Frauke Petry  and Marie Le Pen. This is origin of the charge that (just as the Russians interfered in the U.S. election) they will surely do the same in Europe.

(The brief January 6 report from the U.S. intelligence agencies, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” devotes half its space to RT coverage of the U.S. elections, citing the generally positive of Trump in the general reportage, surely based on his vague statements about improving relations with Russia and his hint that NATO might be obsolete; and the generally negative treatment of Clinton, based on record of hawkish confrontation and talk about bombing Syria. This itself was depicted as “Russian propaganda.” One wonders if the report’s authors considered the mocking portrayal of Trump in the U.S. media as “Democratic propaganda.”)

U.S. News

Flipping the channel to U.S. cable news, the lead story is Paul Manafort’s imminent indictment, apparently for his business dealings. Presented as a BLOCKBUSTER, it’s got all the talking heads smelling blood in the water. Here, they hope, is the smoking gun. Their eyes are bright with hope, if not for Trump’s impeachment, for his forced embrace of continued confrontation with Moscow.

On the night of the election, most anchors reacted in shock. Rachel Maddow appeared aghast. They were stunned at their own failure to predict this outcome and were obliged to seek excuses for the unexpected, unfortunate outcome. The Comey announcement was of course the first explanation deployed, but soon a far more useful one appeared: Russia had rigged the election by providing stolen DNC emails to Wikileaks, using them to discredit Hillary. (It’s rarely mentioned how, precisely, they had done that, by showing that the DNC under Debbie Wasserman Schultz, had rigged the primaries against Bernie Sanders.)

Obama requested a quick intelligence report, to justify immediate harsh sanctions. He got it, expelled over 700 Russian diplomats, and closed down consulates and recreational facilities owned by the Russian state. These follow the sanctions applied in 2014 in response to events in Ukraine, which caused Russia to retaliate, among other things, by ending the program through which Americans adopt Russian children.

“Russian Interference”

The meeting between Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower in June 2016, including Donald Jr., Jared Kushner, Manafort, Rinat Akhmetshin and publicist Rob Goldstone appears to have included three elements: withdrawal of sanctions under a Trump administration, restitution of the adoption program (with which Veselnitskaya has indeed been involved) as one action in return, and the issue which drew Don Jr. to the gathering: and possibly the promise of info on Hillary. So if Don Jr. and Jared say it was about adoption they might be telling the partial truth.

Hadn’t Junior been told that there were documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” and hadn’t he said “I love it”? It is just possible that this meeting resulted in Russian hacking of the DNC and the leaking of the documents by Wikileaks (although Julian Assange and colleague Craig Murray strongly deny this).

On July 22, Wikileaks released its first batch of DNC emails. Wasserman-Schultz and half a dozen others had to resign, and DNC sincerely apologized to Sanders for Wasserman-Schultz’s comment that it would be “silly” to imagine a Sanders victory.

On July 27 Trump speaking to a news conference in Doral, Florida said this:

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing [from Clinton’s emails] I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

On Nov. 7, Wikileaks released a second batch of documents, including a email written by Hillary’s own campaign chairman John Podesta in January, saying: “I’m down. Our team is all tactics and has no idea of how to lift her up.” Very embarrassing just before the election. But the provenance of the leaked documents is in fact unclear, and contested.

This BLOCKBUSTER news about Manafort reportedly involves financial transactions. The idea may be to trade leniency for financial wrongdoing for information on the alleged “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Moscow. But what if there is none?

News anchors keep referring to Manafort as “Trump’s campaign manager,” elevating his significance. Recall that Trump had Corey Lewandowski as his campaign chairman from January to June; Manafort from June to August; and Stephen Bannon from August to November. Why not say, “Bannon, the second out of three Trump campaign chiefs”? And why not add: “…who resigned when it was disclosed that he had been paid huge sums as a consultant for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych?”

And then mention that Yanukovych had been democratically elected in 2010, and that Manafort, who had advised U.S. presidential candidates Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, Ferdinand Marcos, Mobuto Sese Seko, and Jonas Savimbi. And that there’s probably nothing illegal about that.

Why All the Fuss?

Why all this fuss about Manafort in Ukraine? Because he’s accused of developing ties with Russians while there, which is hardly surprising, considering that he’s a mercenary opportunist and businessman, and Russia and Ukraine have numerous historical, cultural, economic and business ties. Yanukovich’s party (Party of Regions) is described by the U.S. as “pro-Russian” although that is simplistic and reflects ignorance of the ethnic mix in Ukraine and the relationship to both Russia and the EU. (Victoria Nuland, Obama’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, promoted that view and declared the U.S.’s support for “the Ukrainian people’s European aspirations.”)

Yanukovich could have introduced Manafort to lots of Russians. But that was all over in 2014 before Trump announced his campaign.

We now know that Manafort came under investigation by the FBI soon after the U.S.-backed putsch in February 2014 and is ongoing. But it didn’t start as an investigation into Russian election meddling. And it will very possibly not find any evidence for that. It may find, for example, an email in which Manafort supports the withdrawal of the party plank in July 2015 advocating lethal arms to the current government. (This is another of the very few “facts” cited establish “Russian interference.” But it seems to me a lot of Republicans don’t want to provoke Russia in Russia’s backyard. Since when does mere reason constitute “collusion”?) But it would be a stretch to assume he’s the key villain interlocutor between “Russian operatives” and the Trump campaign.

But why this term, “operative”? What is a “Russian operative,” such as the Trump campaign may have met? As opposed to a Russian businessman, politician, lawyer, journalist, priest? The term is tendentious, implying that every Russian operates on behalf of the Russian state and Vladimir Putin. Russophobic language infects the relentless coverage of this issue, which—as Van Jones suggested—has been a nothingburger.

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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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