Call it the scandal that will not die. Or, more accurately, the scandalmongering that will not die. In the last few weeks, there has been a spate of new assertions that presidential candidate Donald Trump and the Trump campaign did, in fact, collude with Russia to fix the 2016 election. No matter that special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors, an aggressive bunch with a big budget and all the powers of U.S. law enforcement, investigated the collusion allegation for years and failed to establish that it ever happened.
Now, there are more and more references to something called the "Russia hoax hoax." Anti-Trump types are unhappy that Trump, and some Trump defenders, and even some who aren't Trump defenders, now talk about the Russia investigation as a "hoax." Calling the Trump-Russia investigation a hoax, they argue, is a hoax in itself — thus the "Russia hoax hoax."
"The Real Hoax" is the title of a web piece by the Brookings Institution's Jonathan Rauch. "It Wasn't a Hoax" is the title of an article by the Atlantic's David Frum. "The End of the Great Russia Hoax Hoax" is the title of a Deep State Radio podcast featuring prominent Trump-Russia promoters Natasha Bertrand of Politico, Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast, Josh Campbell of CNN, and Susan Hennessey of the Brookings Institution's Lawfare website. Lawfare also produced a podcast featuring Rauch and Frum, as well as disgraced FBI agent Peter Strzok, moderated by Brookings's Benjamin Wittes.
Why all the new activity? The Trump-Russia true believers are deeply concerned about the fallout from special counsel John Durham's investigation of the investigation. In particular, Durham's indictments have demolished any possibility of believing in the Steele dossier, which played a big role in the Trump-Russia investigation.
It really did, no matter who tries to deny it. Remember, top FBI officials hired former British spy Christopher Steele to investigate Trump for the bureau. (It didn't work out because Steele couldn't stop talking to the press.) FBI leaders also wanted to include Steele's unverified allegations, later shown to be ridiculously thinly sourced, in the Intelligence Community Assessment of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. In January 2017, the nation's top intelligence chiefs briefed outgoing President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump on Steele's tales. Then, when that briefing was leaked, the dossier became huge news when CNN reported it. Hours later, BuzzFeed published the whole thing. Ever since, it has been a near-sacred document for the truest of the true collusion believers.
But now, Durham has shown that some of the dossier's allegations, which we already knew were financed by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, were not only laughably sourced but also the work of a Clinton-connected politico who fed gossip to Steele's hired dirt-gatherer. The Steele dossier looks more and more like an elaborate and sadly effective political dirty trick.
It's not that the Russia hoax hoax crowd wants to defend the dossier. Rather, they are concerned that some will look at Durham's dismantling of the dossier and conclude that the entire Russia investigation was a hoax. Indeed, in that Brookings podcast, Rauch said he was concerned that some writers he respects — Jesse Singal, Andrew Sullivan, Eli Lake, and Peter Berkowitz among them — have dismissed the entire investigation. So, the anti-Trumpers have invented the Russia hoax hoax, the idea that anyone who, relying on Durham's findings, pronounces the whole Russia investigation a hoax is himself perpetrating a hoax. And doing Donald Trump's bidding, too. And that must be stopped.
The basic argument of the anti-Trump writers is that there really was Trump-Russia collusion. They didn't make it up! They go through the known events of the Trump-Russia timeline — Trump's famous "Russia, if you're listening" statement, the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting, the "contacts" between Trump campaign figures and various Russians, the polling that then-Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort provided to a Russian who was a longtime business associate and also, perhaps, an intelligence agent, and the various actions of Michael Cohen and Roger Stone — and argue that it all adds up to an indisputable case of collusion, no matter what special counsel Mueller could or could not find.
This is not the place to answer each of the points in detail. Suffice it to say some of them are just plain wrong, while others are just plain weak. For example, when discussing the "Russia, if you're listening" line on the Brookings podcast, Rauch said that "Trump publicly ... asked the Russians to illegally ... steal and dump Clinton campaign documents." But in his July 27, 2016, news conference, Trump was not referring to Clinton campaign documents. When he mentioned "30,000 emails that are missing," he was clearly referring to emails from a personal account that Clinton, when secretary of state, deleted on her own, allowing her lawyers to stonewall a House investigating committee. Trump said so specifically: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing." No one would expect Rauch to have done reporting deep inside the Trump campaign, but if he had, he would have known that the 30,000 missing Clinton emails, emails from her secretary of state days, had long been a topic of extensive discussion and speculation at senior levels of the campaign.
On the other end of the scale, the Trump Tower meeting is the best single exhibit for the collusion theory. But even it falls short. Promising negative information on Hillary Clinton, some Russians teased top Trump officials into a meeting. Then, they bored the Trump team with an adoption-based pitch to repeal the Magnitsky Act. The meeting ended pretty quickly with the Trumpers hurrying for the door. Nothing ever happened.
Other instances of alleged "collusion," such as the random set of contacts between Trump figures and Russians — any Russians qualified, apparently — don't tell us anything. The Manafort polling matter boiled down to a classic Manafort operation — the polling, according to close associate Richard Gates, was not secret, and Manafort was using it to show that he was a big deal in hopes of getting money to pay for his profligate personal spending, which is what Manafort was always trying to do. (For a deeper look at each of the collusion charges, please see my 2020 book OBSESSION.)
Perhaps Rauch's strongest point is his claim that the Russia investigation could not have been a hoax because the Justice Department inspector general found that the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane was sufficiently predicated, although the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, noted that the FBI had to meet a "low standard" to start the investigation. But here's the problem: What if an investigation is sufficiently predicated and then cannot establish that a crime has been committed, much less who might have committed it? And what if investigators knew that early on yet kept the investigation going and going and going?
That's what happened in the Trump-Russia investigation. Mueller was appointed in May 2017. By Christmas, after a period of extraordinary cooperation from the Trump defense team, the Mueller prosecutors knew they could not establish that conspiracy or coordination, the terms they employed in the investigation, ever took place. (See OBSESSION again.) And they didn't play word games; Mueller wrote that "even as defined in legal dictionaries, collusion is largely synonymous with conspiracy as that crime is set forth in the general federal conspiracy statute." So, whatever you want to call it — conspiracy, coordination, or collusion — Mueller did not find it.
The bottom line is, the Russia hoax hoax effort is pretty weak tea. Plus, the part coming from the Brookings Institution group looks a little strange, given that a number of figures at the liberal think tank had a part in handling the dossier as it made its way, unknown to the public, through the Obama administration and the media.
But there is another angle to the Russia hoax hoax story that is more interesting than the conventional analysis from Rauch, et al. Going through court papers in the Capitol riot prosecutions, the writer Marcy Wheeler, who posts as emptywheel, has noticed that not only do the riot defendants believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, many also believe that Democrats, through the "Russia hoax," tried to steal the 2016 election from Trump. When they are accused of spreading the "Big Lie" — their 2020 stop-the-steal narrative — they counter by saying, in effect: "You call stop-the-steal the Big Lie? What about your claim that Russia rigged the 2016 election for Trump? That's the real Big Lie, and it was everywhere in the media for years after the election."
Wheeler noted the recent MSNBC appearance of Jan. 6 rally organizers Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lynn Lawrence. (The two are not accused of any crimes.) Host Chris Hayes went through some of the wildest 2020 stolen-election theories and said, "You do get that it wasn't stolen, right? ... that all of those claims were not true, right?" In response, Stockton turned the question around on Hayes, pointing to the media's yearslong Russia frenzy. "Do you now admit," Stockton said to Hayes, "that the Russia memes that you guys ran 24 hours a day in the early days of Trump ... [were] undermining democracy? ... There were dozens of ridiculous claims. ... There were tons of ridiculous clips."
Wheeler wrote: "A key purveyor of the Big Lie [Stockton] excuses his actions because MSNBC reported on a Russia investigation that was based off real facts." She continued: "This is just one example where Trumpsters excuse their own participation in the Big Lie by turning a bunch of different prongs of reporting on Russia in 2017 — some undoubtedly overblown but much based on real facts about real actions that Trump and his aides really took — into the equivalent of wild hoaxes about efforts to steal the 2020 election."
What is going on here? First of all, the Russia hoax hoax arguments are coming from writers and commentators who believed deeply in collusion, so deeply that even when an extensive investigation failed to establish that collusion took place, some of them faulted the investigator and kept on believing. Now, in Trump's refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, the stop-the-steal movement, and the Capitol riot, they see election-denial efforts that uncomfortably echo their own but turned up to 11 and, ultimately, into a riot and physical violence.
What if Trump had handled the post-election period differently? What if he had accepted the verdict of the election and had not accused Democrats of cheating, not launched court challenges, and not called for protests? What if, instead, Trump had followed the 2016 model and surreptitiously used the nation's intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and a willing media, to slander and undermine Biden and his administration in hopes of driving them from office? That would have been following a now-established Democratic/media precedent.
But Trump did what he did. And the Trump-Russia believers did what they did. And now, those believers see Trump followers such as Stockton, defending his denial of the 2020 election results, throwing their old, unproven Russia allegations back at them. So now, they have come up with the idea of a "Russia hoax hoax" — a new way to claim that it is the other guy who is making up false charges.