For decades, Moscow has sought to weaken the United States by sowing discord among Americans and undermining public trust in democracy. But the past few years have given Russian mischief-makers the biggest return on investment since the Cold War. And contrary to the ubiquitous narrative blasted across the media wires nightly, Donald Trump and his administration were only part of the story.
Indeed, the most consequential conduit for Vladimir Putin’s objectives were those public men and women in the media and government who supercharged and disseminated the most extreme conspiracy theories, including those contained in the infamous and discredited Steele dossier as well as the supposition that Trump was a literal Manchurian candidate controlled by a hostile foreign power. So dismayed by Trump’s 2016 election victory, these useful idiots enthusiastically injected these toxins into the body politic, betraying the public’s trust in its institutions in the process. This latter point is likely to leave lasting damage.
Special counsel John Durham’s recent arrest of Igor Danchenko, who once had been employed as a Russian analyst by the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank, brings the once-blurry picture into sharper focus. Danchenko was a primary source of the lurid dossier. Compiling that dossier, of course, was the handiwork of British ex-spy Christopher Steele, whose “research” was supported by the firm Fusion GPS, which in turn was funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Danchenko has been accused of lying to the federal authorities about where he got the information he gave to Steele.
The Durham investigation also revealed that Charles Dolan, a decadeslong friend of the Clintons, was a source of some of the dossier’s most salacious claims and possibly connected to the origins of the wild rumor involving Russian prostitutes. Durham made clear Dolan has not been accused of any crimes and that the Clinton campaign was unaware of Dolan’s involvement with the dossier.
But we do know that while Steele was shopping his juicy “findings” to the FBI, Michael Sussmann of the Clinton campaign also met with the FBI to sound an alarm about “suspicious activity” between servers at the Trump Organization and a Russian bank. He also told the same story to CIA officials in February 2017 and dished the same myth to the liberal publication Slate, which ran with the claim right before the election. The FBI investigated Sussmann’s claim and ruled out any improper cyber links by February 2017. The FBI has since charged Sussmann with lying during that meeting.
Durham’s investigation is showing just how prominent this circular pattern was: Democrats funded opposition research that dug up unsubstantiated gossip, including from Russian nationals, and then fed it to the FBI and media outlets, which ran with it. Major media outlets were unyielding in their advancement of the narrative that Trump was a Russian stooge and that his new administration was beholden to the Russian government. The result was a whirlwind of conspiracy theories that confused the public and whipped up half the country into a paranoid frenzy. Suddenly, anything could be true.
Millions of registered Democrats believe to this day that the United States government was co-opted by Russia and that those who voted for the “treasonous” Trump were either victims or propagators of a successful foreign takeover. This only amplified the divisiveness of our political debates, fed by senior Democrats from Hillary Clinton to Nancy Pelosi and lawmakers who went so far as to boycott Trump’s inauguration. Millions of voters believed what they saw on TV, what they read in news media, and what senior Democratic leadership told them. And so, a mere month into Trump’s presidency, in cities across the country, Democrats marched in “Not My President Day” rallies and thousands carried signs that derided the presidency as illegitimate. In May 2019, at a Biden campaign event, a woman said: “I don’t want to live in a country run by Vladimir Putin. I don’t think anybody in the country should want that. … He is an illegitimate president in my mind. And my biggest fear is that he’s going to do it again with the help of Vlad, his best pal, and we’re going to be stuck with four more years of him. And that is terrifying. It’s terrifying.” Rather than correcting the troubled woman, Joe Biden seemed to play along, stressing the importance of electoral integrity.
Arguably even worse were the former intelligence chiefs and other national security officials who fanned the flames. Former FBI official Andrew McCabe told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he thought it “possible” that Trump is a “Russian asset.” Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper parroted the myth on CNN, saying, “I completely agree with the way Andy characterized it, you know, that it is a possibility.” One of the worst offenders was former CIA Director John Brennan, who routinely used the stature and office of his last job to lend the dossier enough credibility to keep eroding public faith in the democratic process.
After numerous investigations and congressional reports and a two-year special counsel investigation, no one found evidence that Trump collaborated with the Russian government to “steal” the election. But by then, Russia’s nefarious propaganda campaign had done exactly what it was designed to do.
One of the most maddening aspects of the entire affair was that it so warped perceptions of reality that people believed Trump’s policies were proof he was in league with Putin when the Trump administration was notably harsher on Moscow than its predecessor or successor. The pretext for the first impeachment trial and its wall-to-wall media coverage was that the “compromised nature” of the Trump presidency would have the effect of granting Russia a green light to carry out its agenda at the expense of U.S. security. Yet the idea that Putin was controlling a pliable U.S. president was refuted by the reality playing out right in front of everybody’s eyes.
To be clear, it’s true that Trump campaign staff met with Russian officials, and that Trump made an unseemly public remark about wishing the Russians had Clinton’s missing emails. And even as president, his atrocious performance at the press conference with Putin in Helsinki was certainly not the fault of his critics. But once he was in office, his actual policies looked nothing like those of a “compromised” agent.
It was the Trump administration that rejected the Obama-Clinton Russian “reset,” and the Obama administration that concluded that Russia is “no longer an adversary” in official defense documents. The last time Russia invaded Ukraine was on Barack Obama’s watch. Conspicuously, that didn’t happen during the Trump administration, but now, with Biden in office, the storm clouds of war are gathering once again.
During Trump’s presidency, the United States sold tank-busting Javelins to Ukraine, opposed the NATO-weakening Nord Stream 2 pipeline, fostered closer ties with Poland, supported the Three Seas Initiative, withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty to deny Russia a strategic advantage, and invested in the nuclear deterrent in ways explicitly designed to discourage Russian aggression against NATO. The list goes on, to include sanctions for chemical weapons use and even the authorization to eliminate the 100 Russian mercenaries threatening to attack allied forces in Syria.
Things are very different under Biden. We are back to a one-way reset: denying desperately needed weapons to Ukraine, approving waivers for Nord Stream 2 (without even giving Poland a heads-up), a weak response to Russian cyber hacking, delaying a critical hypersonic missile test so as not to ruffle Moscow’s feathers, and choosing not to punish Russia for its dangerously provocative anti-satellite missile test that has endangered our space assets and astronauts.
Now, Russia is poised to attack Ukraine once again. As sabers rattle on the Ukrainian steppe, they are met in Washington with the jejune silence of the managerial class who labeled Trump a “traitor.” Putin himself probably never expected this to go so well.
Rebeccah Heinrichs is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an adjunct professor at the Institute of World Politics.