By Matt Taibbi / Substack
Last week, in the trial of former Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann, prosecutor Andrew DeFilippis asked ex-campaign manager Robby Mook about the decision to share with a reporter a bogus story about Donald Trump and Russia’s Alfa Bank. Mook answered by giving up his onetime boss. “I discussed it with Hillary,” he said, describing his pitch to the candidate: “Hey, you know, we have this, and we want to share it with a reporter… She agreed to that.”
In a country with a functioning media system, this would have been a huge story. Obviously this isn’t Watergate, Hillary Clinton was never president, and Sussmann’s trial doesn’t equate to prosecutions of people like Chuck Colson or Gordon Liddy. But as we’ve slowly been learning for years, a massive fraud was perpetrated on the public with Russiagate, and Mook’s testimony added a substantial piece of the picture, implicating one of the country’s most prominent politicians in one of the more ambitious disinformation campaigns we’ve seen.
There are two reasons the Clinton story isn’t a bigger one in the public consciousness. One is admitting the enormity of what took place would require system-wide admissions by the FBI, the CIA, and, as Matt Orfalea’s damning video above shows, virtually every major news media organization in America.
More importantly, there’s no term for the offense Democrats committed in 2016, though it was similar to Watergate. Instead of a “third-rate burglary” and a bug, Democrats sent schlock research to the FBI, who in turn lied to the secret FISA court and obtained “legal” surveillance authority over former Trump aide Carter Page (which opened doors to searches of everyone connected to Page). Worse, instead of petty “ratfucking” like Donald Segretti’s “Canuck letter,” the Clinton campaign created and fueled a successful, years-long campaign of official harassment and media fraud. They innovated an extraordinary trick, using government connections and press to generate real criminal and counterintelligence investigations of political enemies, mostly all based on what we now know to be self-generated nonsense.
The Clintons, and especially Hillary, have been baselessly accused of all sorts of things in the past, the murder of Vince Foster being just one example. The “vast right-wing conspiracy” was so successful that the Clintons ended up aligning with and helping fund its chief architect, David Brock, ahead of the 2016 cycle. Along with Perkins Coie and the research agency Fusion-GPS, headed by former Wall Street Journal reporter and current self-admiring sleaze-merchant Glenn Simpson, they engineered three long years of phony “collusion” headlines. No matter what papers like the Washington Post try to argue this week, this was an enormous scandal.
The world has mostly moved on, since Russiagate was thirty or forty “current things” ago, but the public prosecution of the collusion theory was a daily preoccupation of national media for years. A substantial portion of the population believed the accusations, and expected the story would end with Donald Trump in jail or at least indicted, scrolling for a thousand straight days in desperate expectation of the promised justice. Trump was bounced from Twitter for incitement, but Twitter has a policy against misinformation as well. It includes a prohibition against “misleading” media that is “likely to result in widespread confusion on public issues.”
I’m not a fan of throwing people off Twitter, but how can knowingly launching thousands of bogus news stories across a period of years, leading millions of people to believe lies and expect news that never arrived, not qualify as causing “widespread confusion on public issues”?
Let’s travel back in time to the first months of 2017, when “Russiagate” became the dominant news story in the world. Full panic arrived on the wings of a series of blockbuster events. One was the release of an Intelligence Assessment by the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on January 6, 2017, which concluded Russia ordered an “influence campaign” with a “clear preference” for Trump. Days later, there was an “absolute bombshell” of a leak reported in CNN, about four intelligence chiefs — Clapper, CIA head John Brennan, FBI chief James Comey, and the NSA’s Mike Rogers — who supposedly presented president-elect Trump with “claims of Russian efforts to compromise him.”
Instantly, much of America was in a fever of speculation over the suddenly plausible-sounding possibility that the incoming president was a real-world “Manchurian Candidate” under Russia’s control. That phrase would be used by the Washington Post, New York Times, Vanity Fair, Salon, Daily News and countless others:
The impact on the population of these and other stories was awesome, defining the Trump presidency before it began. An Economist/YouGov poll from late December, 2016, in other words even before Russiagate even came to a full news boil, showed an astonishing 50% of Clinton voters believed Russia had “tampered with vote tallies.” This is one of many interesting pieces of news only discoverable on the WayBack Machine now.
Americans saw Russiagate as a two-tiered story. Tier one was the notion that Russia “hacked the election,” by leaking Democratic Party emails and through schemes like buying Facebook ads. This assertion remains more or less unquestioned, even though it probably shouldn’t be, as multiple key pieces of evidence now look dubious at best, from the suspect conclusions of auditor Crowdstrike about the hack of the DNC to the dicey reliability of a human source in Russia who may have led Brennan to conclude over other analyst objections that Russian “interference” was done on Trump’s behalf. However, that’s a subject for another time.
Tier two was the idea that Trump aided Russia’s “election hacking,” as the New York Times tabbed it unequivocally at the time. We now know the initial public accusations that Trump “colluded” came more or less entirely from the Clinton campaign, based on information that was not just unreliable but fraudulent.
Primarily, this was disseminated to the public via two disinformation streams. The first was the dossier generated by former spy Christopher Steele, on behalf of Simpson’s Fusion-GPS.
The public campaign began with a Yahoo! report, based on Steele’s reports, describing Carter Page as a “possible back channel” brokering “significant and disturbing ties” between Trump and the Kremlin. Later, there was the aforementioned Intelligence Assessment, which contained a classified annex referring to Steele’s claims about Russia having “compromising material” on Trump. Those would-be explosive secret Steele claims — hinted at in an October 31, 2016 Mother Jones story that failed to have wide impact — finally came out in technicolor thanks to that bombshell CNN story from early January 2017, featuring Watergate legend Carl Bernstein on the byline, about the four intelligence chiefs delivering the Steele material to Trump.
That CNN story, which told America via anonymous sources there had been a “continuing exchange of information” between “Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” quickly led to Buzzfeed’s publication of the whole Steele enchilada. Once out, those Steele reports sent reporters on years of wild goose chases, inspiring prolonged journo-hunts for everything from the pee tape to evidence of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen meeting with Russian hackers in Prague.
The second source of early collusion claims was the preposterous Alfa Bank story. This drama is almost too dumb to recap, but the gist is Clinton’s lawyer Sussmann worked with academics who’d improperly accessed non-public data from a federal contract to build a case that a “Trump server” was communicating with a Russian bank, in what the New York Times later described as a “mysterious computer back channel.” The problem was, it was all hooey. According to Sussmann’s indictment, researchers worried they “couldn’t make any claims that would fly public scrutiny,” with one complaining: “The only thing that drives us at this point is that we just do not like [Trump]… Folks, I am afraid we have tunnel vision. Time to regroup?”
No such luck: instead of regrouping, the campaign boldly submitted the nonsense to the FBI, along with a white paper by Fusion-GPS, before leaking this bilge to the media with, we now learn, the explicit approval of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The idea that Trump was communicating in a super-secret way via inscrutable beeps and bops with a Russian bank was so stupid that multiple normally dependable anti-Trump outlets, including the Times and a few writers at the Washington Post, were unable to find a way to take the claims seriously.
However, as the above video shows, there were plenty of big media fish that still bit on this most ridiculous of hooks. Rachel Maddow, in keeping with her pattern through this period, was the most extravagant offender, making the inadvertently revealing statement about the Alfa tale that “This could be the missing link” proving collusion, the long-sought “Holy Grail” of proof. She is also seen telling New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins, one of the primary press marks (along with Slate’s Franklin Foer) trusted by the campaign to be dumb enough to shepherd this absurd story into print, “We are blessed as a country to have journalists as talented as you and Franklin Foer writing about this.”
MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle was still more deranged, declaring that Alfa’s “server was found in Trump Tower… give me a break,” as if a Russian server was literally discovered in Trump’s bedroom. Deep state spokesmodel Natasha Bertrand yuks, “What more evidence do you need?” We also see Evelyn Farkas, who at one time served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under Barack Obama, muttering, “I feel like there are a lotta dots here.” She’s referring not to her humorously unfocused, marble-like eyes, but the idea that these “dots” would someday add up to evidence. Farkas remember once went on MSNBC and insisted she had firsthand evidence of Trumpian collusion — “I knew there was more” — only to later admit under oath before congress, “I didn’t know anything.”
Even Watergate’s other reporting legend, Bob Woodward, said on MSNBC in October 2018 about a Filkins story, “This is really important incremental coverage… I mean that [New Yorker] piece is very significant,” adding, “You just have to chip away at it and if we stop chipping away at it, we’re not gonna get to the big answer.”
Both the Alfa stories and all of the key Steele stories went on to be demolished by official inquiries. The breakdown began with the terse conclusions of onetime votive candle subject Robert Mueller. Ol’ saggy-face power-crapped on the Prague story in his long-awaited report (“Cohen had never traveled to Prague”), which also detailed at length how Alfa Bank chief Petr Aven was charged by Putin late in 2016 to find ways of “getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration.” Mueller showed how Aven failed utterly at the task, rebuffed by Dmitri Simes by way of a businessman named Richard Burt. Mueller wrote that poor Aven had to go back to Russia and personally recount to Putin his “lack of success” at building “relations with the Trump administration.”
All this failure came during the period when, according to both Perkins Coie and Slate,Trump and Alfa were supposedly conspiring away in diabolical computer beeps, like Heaven’s Gate cult members. Maddow incidentally was completely wrong when she says Mueller didn’t address the Alfa story. All of the above spoke directly to that issue.
Later, in his catastrophic congressional testimony, Mueller failed to answer in the way fans expected when asked by Republican Will Hurd about Slate’s claim that the Trump-Alfa connection was “akin to what criminal syndicates do.” As we see in Orf’s video above, a bewildered-looking Mueller answered, “My belief at this point, it’s not true.”
The real end came with the release of an exhaustive 2019 report by Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz about the FISA applications on Page. This scathing document first of all flatly rebuffed the Alfa story, saying the Trump-Alfa connection had been investigated by FBI, who by February of 2017 concluded “there were no such links.” This means FBI higher-ups let the likes of Bob Woodward ramble away about this moronic conspiracy theory for more than a year after they knew it was nonsense.
After Horowitz was finished, none of the headline Steele claims — not the pee tape (revealed to have come from sources speaking “in jest” over “beers”), not Cohen-in-Prague, not the “well-developed conspiracy” of five years, not the giant stake in Rosneft offered as a bribe for dropping sanctions, not the U.S.-based Russian spy ring paid via a nonexistent consulate in Miami, nor any of the other absurd collusion accusations — had any meat left on the bone.
Horowitz’s revelations should have ended the careers of at least a dozen prominent journalists, inspired mass resignations within the FBI, and left the Clinton campaign facing an avalanche of official questions and sanctions. Though few of those things happened, the report did effectively kill Russiagate as a day-to-day media phenomenon, even among those “who want Donald Trump to go away,” as Times editor Dean Baquet famously put it.
The new revelation by Mook about Alfa, that “I discussed it with Hillary” and “she agreed to that,” is significant because it shows the candidate was directly involved with the deception. This knowledge makes the campaign’s public statements about collusion stories from that early period look far worse, and they already looked bad.
The first time the Clinton campaign fed tales about Steele and his material to the press, via the September, 2016 Yahoo! story about Page as a “back channel” to the Kremlin, the Clinton camp released a statement pretending to be shocked, shocked by the news.
They wrote (emphasis mine): “It’s chilling to learn that U.S. intelligence officials are conducting a probe into suspected meetings between Trump’s foreign policy adviser Carter Page and members of Putin’s inner circle while in Moscow.” The release came complete with a big smiling picture of Hillary:
With Alfa a month or so later, the campaign did the same thing, issuing a brassy statement in the form of a tweet by current Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan. This Big Twitter Lie among other things announced, “This could be the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow”:
When the Horowitz report came out years later, blue-friendly media ecstatically reported the conclusion that the FBI’s official “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation launched in the summer of 2016 had not been based on Steele. The bureau, Horowitz said, had an “authorized purpose” to open an inquiry, based on a convoluted tale involving onetime Trump aide George Papadopoulos supposedly telling an Australian diplomat named Alexander Downer about “dirt” Russians had on Clinton (Papadopoulos never actually spoke to any Russians, but such details were considered minor at the time). Papadopoulos, not Steele, was reported by papers like the Times to be the “catalyst” for the Trump-Russia investigation.
This is technically true. However, we know from subsequent testimony by FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe that the Bureau knew by August, 2016 — within about a month of the opening of the investigation — that Papadopoulos was a dead end. He told Republican congressman Trey Gowdy this was why the Bureau shifted focus back then to Carter Page, because the evidence “didn’t particularly indicate” Papadopoulos “was interacting with the Russians.” Moreover we learned from Horowitz that despite what Democrats and the press had claimed, the Steele material played a “central and essential role” in allowing the FBI to pursue FISA authority on Page in September of 2016. Without Clinton’s bogus reports, the Trump-Russia investigation might never have gone past September, 2016.
Russiagate die-hards will wave their hands here and point to the Senate Intelligence Committee report of 2020 that concluded there was collusion based on the idea that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort gave “sensitive internal polling data” to his former deputy Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the report bluntly says “is a Russian intelligence officer.” The Senate Committee could not say what their evidence was against Kilimnik, or what he supposedly did with that polling data, or why. They did say they obtained “some information” that Kilimnik “may have” been connected “to the GRU’s hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election,” though the portion of the report explaining this remarkable supposition is redacted.
I’d argue all of the above — that Senate report is a joke on multiple levels — but it’s irrelevant. Kilimnik didn’t really show up in popular collusion theories until early 2018, well over a year after the Russiagate madness began. The collusion train in the crucial first period of late 2016 through late 2017 was driven by Clinton-concocted news phantoms, during a time when the public was not yet aware that the Clinton campaign funded the Steele reports.
Clinton and her campaign systematically lied throughout, both about “collusion” and about their involvement in disseminating popular theories about it. We know this for a fact. The Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign recently agreed to pay a $113,000 fine to the Federal Election Commission for concealing their role in producing the Steele research, a role by the way her campaign never admitted to, and which was only disclosed through dogged effort by the House Intelligence Committee nearly a year after the 2016 election.
Clinton’s ex-lawyer Sussmann now stands accused of submitting the “tunnel vision” research about the silly Trump-Alfa tale to the FBI without revealing the (admittedly obvious) connection between that research and her campaign. Worse, both she and the current National Security Adviser Sullivan tweeted — tweeted! — an assertion that this same story represented “the most direct link yet” between Trump and the Kremlin. This is not just misinformation, it’s the most sophisticated kind of disinformation, an intentionally false story spread with official imprimatur.
For all the whining by the likes of Gobbels-for-a-nanosecond Nina Jankowicz of the now-paused DHS “Disinformation Governance Board,” disinformation is a real danger in the Internet age. The most dangerous variety, however, isn’t from random users in porn-like chats, but the kind exposed by the Clinton campaign. There’s just no defense against privately-generated fake news stories, commissioned by prominent politicians who in turn hand them to the corporate press, which then runs them with off-the-record nudges of encouragement from agencies like the FBI.
Especially if reporters decide en masse to act like political aides instead of doing their jobs and questioning these stories, the public is really helpless to stop such deceptions. The fast-receding early years of Russiagate prove the point, as does the laughably obvious collective decision by all the major networks to non-cover the Mook testimony dragging Clinton into this mess.
It’s unconscionable that Jake Sullivan has been allowed to remain in high office given his demonstrated role in perpetrating this public fraud, and though I never like to say any colleague should lose a job, anyone in media who who printed this transparent political concoction is either too stupid or too dishonest to work in journalism.
Hillary Clinton was falsely accused many times earlier in her career. This time she’s guilty. It’s not society’s fault there’s no legal name for the offense she and her campaign committed. It was serious, and there should be serious consequences.