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Why ‘Russiagate’ Skeptics Are Cackling—But Shouldn’t Be

In claiming that the Trump-Russia story was nothing more than a sensation-driven media witch hunt, the revisionists downplay and distort a very ugly story.
February 9, 2023
Why ‘Russiagate’ Skeptics Are Cackling—But Shouldn’t Be
(Composite/ Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Committed skeptics of “Russiagate”—the scandal around Russian interference in the 2016 election with the intent of helping elect Donald Trump, and the Trump campaign’s collaboration with this effort—had a good month in January. First, a study released on January 9 concluded that Russian disinformation and propaganda on Twitter, while a real phenomenon, did not significantly affect American attitudes (partly because the notorious Russian bots were, as the Intercept put it, “a small speck when compared to homegrown posters”) or influence the results of the 2016 election. Then, on January 30, Columbia Journalism Review published a four-part report on Russiagate with a scathing analysis of media coverage by veteran investigative journalist Jeff Gerth. It concluded that the news media repeatedly fell short of professional standards in their handling of the story, compromising their objectivity and contributing to polarization and erosion of public trust in journalism.

The reaction from the skeptics—a motley crowd that includes everyone from hardcore Donald Trump cultists to anti-anti-Trumpists to critics of America’s national security apparatus and various anti-establishment contrarians—was downright exuberant.

So is Russiagate really and conclusively debunked as a “hoax” driven by Trump Derangement Syndrome? Hardly. But to explain why will require getting into the weeds.

In reality, neither the study, which was conducted by New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics, nor the CJR story, “The Press Versus the President,” makes any definitive claims about the substance of Russiagate. Thus, while the Intercept article quoted above noted that the NYU study was “a gentle evidence-based corrective to societal fears of low-effort social media propagandizing as some diabolical tool of adversarial regimes,” it also acknowledged that the study focused only on tweets, “so the possible effect of Facebook groups, Instagram posts, or, say, the spread of materials hacked from the Democratic National Committee was left unassessed.” The latter is an especially important point: The main focus of the Trump/Russia investigation was always the hack-and-leak operation, not Twitter bots and their shenanigans, no matter the degree to which some critics have associated Russiagate with the easily downplayed war of the bots.

As for “The Press Versus the President,” Gerth emphasized in an email to me this past weekend that “the piece wasn’t meant to be an examination of Trump and Russia, but rather the media’s handling of the matter.” He declined to comment on whether he believes there was any substance to the actual scandal: “I’ll let the story, and my comments in the afterword, speak for themselves,” he wrote.

Gerth’s afterword deals with issues of journalistic ethics, such as the failure of some news outlets to cover facts that contradict the story’s premises and the overreliance on anonymous sources. It makes entirely valid points—for instance, about the routine use of a “person familiar with” the matter to denote anonymous sources, a formulation that Gerth reports appeared over a thousand times in New York Times coverage of Trump and Russia. (One of Gerth’s former editors comments that the phrase is vague enough that “it could even mean the reporter.”) But all in all, Gerth’s afterword does convey the impression that Russian election interference, and related misconduct by Trump and his team, were overblown by a hostile and often sloppy media class.

In a response in Mother Jones, David Corn writes that Gerth consistently “lowballs the Russian attack on the election and Trump’s assistance” by focusing almost exclusively on two elements: the lack of evidence of actual “collusion”—as in, active conspiracy to subvert or steal the election—between Russian agents and the Trump campaign, and the role of the much-ballyhooed, eventually debunked dossier compiled by retired British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. This approach, Corn suggests, ignores or downplays many other forms of Russia-related wrongdoing by Team Trump, including Trump’s repeated attempts to deny and obscure Vladimir Putin’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Of course, Corn is not an entirely disinterested critic: He had a direct connection to the story as the reporter who first revealed the existence, though not the scandalous contents, of the Steele dossier (which infamously alleged that Trump had been compromised by Russian intelligence via blackmail involving a salacious tape). But his critique is largely on target, and I had much the same reaction while reading the CJR report.

One example mentioned by Corn: Gerth’s treatment of Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in June 2016, in response to an email promising Kremlin-supplied dirt on Hillary Clinton (to which Junior infamously replied, “I love it”). Revelations about this meeting were treated as a major scoop by the New York Times in July 2017. Gerth seems to suggest it was a nothingburger because no actual dirt was produced:

In the end, the “I love it” email showed a receptiveness by Trump’s world to dirt from Russia. But the meeting itself was a “flop,” wrote Barry Meier, a former Times reporter, in his book about the Trump dossier, Spooked.

But that seems like a wrong-way-up summary of the incident and its implications: It seems much more significant that while the meeting was a flop, TrumpWorld showed its receptiveness to Kremlin-funneled kompromat. (The email from a business associate to set up the meeting told Don Jr. that the alleged incriminating material was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”) As Corn puts it:

With this confab, Team Trump signaled to Moscow that it was willing to accept Putin’s covert assistance. It did not report to the FBI or anyone else that the Kremlin was aiming to intervene in the election. This may not have been collusion; it was complicity.

Here’s another example, one that Corn doesn’t mention. Gerth notes that Trump’s comments about firing FBI chief James Comey in the May 11, 2017 interview to NBC’s Lester Holt—“I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story”—were widely taken to mean that the firing “was aimed at getting the FBI inquiry off his back,” even though the interview’s full text “presented a more nuanced story”: Trump also said that he expected the FBI to continue the inquiry and do it “properly,” and even acknowledged that Comey’s firing could lengthen it. Several New York Times stories omitted the additional text (the Washington Post and CNN, on the other hand, included it). The omission was wrong, to be sure. But there was another reason the “narrative” of the Comey firing as part of Trump’s effort to derail the Russia investigation took hold despite his hedging. Only a few days later, another big story broke that overshadowed everything else: On May 10, the day after firing Comey, Trump had bragged about it to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in an Oval Office meeting. In his words: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nutjob.” And: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

There is no mention of this incident in Gerth’s story. When I asked about it, he replied:

The piece wasn’t meant to be an examination of Trump and Russia, but rather the media’s handling of the matter. People on all sides of this issue can, and have, suggested I left out what they think are important matters. Trump made no secret of his dislike for Comey or his desire to sack him, and that’s covered in the piece.

Obviously, an analytical piece about media coverage of Russiagate could not include every single detail. But surely an episode as extraordinary as an Oval Office huddle with top Russian officials during which the president of the United States not only disparaged the just-fired FBI director but said, point-blank, that the firing was taking off the “pressure” on him related to the Russia investigation deserved to be included, especially since it played a key role in shaping both media narratives and popular perception.

It makes sense that the primary focus of a journalism review piece would be the media’s conduct rather than that of a politician. But in Gerth’s article, this overriding focus creates some oddly skewed perspectives. For instance, the fact that in 2019 Buzzfeed slightly overstated the directness with which Trump pushed his lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower project in Moscow assumes greater importance than the fact that Trump repeatedly lied about it both as a candidate and as president, encouraged Cohen to lie about it in various coded ways (and more overtly via lawyers), and knowingly permitted him to lie about it to Congress.

Meanwhile, when a bipartisan Senate report presents evidence that Trump adviser Roger Stone had (in Gerth’s words) “greater involvement with the dissemination of hacked material released by WikiLeaks” than special prosecutor Robert Mueller was able to prove—and that WikiLeaks was very likely knowingly assisting a Russian intelligence operation—Gerth simply notes this in passing as one of the Russiagate-related developments after the Mueller probe. (Mueller’s team was unable to develop sufficient admissible evidence of either Stone’s or WikiLeaks’s culpability in conspiring with Russian hackers; Stone was ultimately convicted of false statements and obstruction of justice in relation to these activities, and later pardoned by Trump.) Gerth also fails to mention that, according to initially undisclosed portions of the Mueller report, there was evidence that in July 2016, Stone told Trump in advance of the forthcoming publication of DNC emails (contradicting Trump’s written answers to Mueller in 2018).

True, these facts are not relevant to media coverage of Russiagate. They are, however, directly related to the underlying question of whether there was serious wrongdoing on the part of the Trump campaign—and very likely Trump himself—at the heart of the Trump/Russia scandal. Leaving out these facts makes the CJR report a more attractive and convenient tool for the Russiagate skeptics, who are able more easily to co-opt Gerth’s work to serve their ends.

Lastly, another detail in Gerth’s report illuminates his tendency to err on the side of the “nothingburger” narrative. At one point, Gerth notes:

The Mueller report’s implication that [Russia’s Internet Research Agency] was part of a “sweeping” Russian government meddling campaign in 2016 was later rebuked by a federal Judge handling an IRA-related case. The indictment of the IRA, the judge found, alleged “only private conduct by private actors” and “does not link the [IRA] to the Russian government.” The prosecutors made clear they were not prepared to show that the IRA efforts were a government operation. Mueller’s report does refer to “ties” between Putin and the owner of the IRA—he is sometimes referred to as “Putin’s Cook”—and the fact that “the two have appeared together in public photographs.” Mueller’s source for that was an article in the Times.

The “owner of the IRA” is, of course, none other than Yevgeny Prigozhin, who now has a much higher profile than in 2019, when the Mueller report was released, because of his involvement in the war in Ukraine as the chief of the Wagner mercenary group. When asked if it was still tenable in 2023 to regard Prigozhin as merely a “private actor,” Gerth replied by email, “The issue isn’t whether Prigozhin and Putin are buddies; they are. The issue is whether the IRA was part of a government operation.” He also pointed out that “the IRA’s activities were amateurish” and “far from the usual tradecraft exhibited by Kremlin spies.”

But Prigozhin isn’t merely Putin’s buddy who caters his banquets; he’s a guy who, as we now know, has the authority to recruit prisoners from Russian penal colonies to join the war effort in Ukraine, to have their criminal records expunged in exchange for military service, and to execute them for disloyalty. There is plenty of evidence that even before the Ukraine invasion, the Wagner Group was essentially a public-private partnership: A 2020 report from Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies described it as “an informal semi-state security group” that the Kremlin sometimes used as a tool instead of more official structures to preserve “plausible deniability.” Surely, there are good reasons to believe that the same is true of Prigozhin’s ventures in cyberwarfare, regardless of the competence of those tasked with conducting them.

Does Gerth himself have a bias? That’s a question some of his critics, notably Creators Syndicate columnist Joe Conason, have forcefully raised. Detractors point out that despite Gerth’s impressive credentials—three decades on the staff of the New York Times, where he received special mention as part of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize–winning team in 1999—he was embroiled in two major controversies about the reliability of his reporting. The first of these had to do with charges of malfeasance by Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Whitewater land deal, which led to the Ken Starr special counsel probe (and, eventually, to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton’s impeachment—though, ironically, no wrongdoing by either Clinton was ever found regarding the Whitewater deal itself). Conason writes that “Gerth appeared to be heavily influenced by partisan figures on the Right with agendas that obscured the truth” and that he is now “providing tilted alibis for Trump” as part of the same pattern.

Conason himself, of course, is a strong partisan, not an objective journalist, so the charge (also advanced by other partisans, such as David Brock of Media Matters) must be taken with a grain of salt.

But Gerth’s past work, which also includes the Hillary Clinton biography Her Way, published in 2007 (in co-authorship with Don Van Natta Jr.) and characterized by the New Statesman as “an unremittingly hostile tirade,” does raise questions about whether there’s an anti-Hillary Clinton animus behind his Russiagate critique. The Trump/Russia story, after all, is about claims that Russian interference helped steal Hillary Clinton’s victory—or, alternately, that Clinton and her team weaponized flimsy claims of Trump’s “Russia connection,” first to damage Trump’s election chances and then to provide a convenient excuse for Clinton’s election loss. Indeed, Gerth makes it pretty clear that he leans toward the second version. As he puts it:

By 2016, as Trump’s political viability grew and he voiced admiration for Russia’s “strong leader,” Clinton and her campaign would secretly sponsor and publicly promote an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that there was a secret alliance between Trump and Russia.

In our email exchange, Gerth disputed the accusations of bias as a “shooting the messenger” tactic, pointing out that he had done “done scores of critical investigative stories on Republicans and Democrats” and that the same outlets would either attack him or praise him depending on which party his investigations targeted. Addressing specifically the charge of an anti-Clinton vendetta, he said that while working as a senior reporter at ProPublica in 2015 and 2016, he advised that outlet against collaborating with Peter Schweizer, author of the 2015 bestseller Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, to explore the Clintons’ foreign sources of income such as donations and paid speeches. (Both the New York Times and the Washington Post ended up having much-criticized collaboration agreements with Schweizer.)

Fair enough. And yet the fact remains that Gerth’s disclosure statement in the CJR piece, which acknowledges his recent investigative work and potential projects related to the Clintons—and obliquely references his consultations for ProPublica regarding Clinton Cash—makes no mention of his controversial Whitewater reporting in the 1990s, or the book he co-authored on Hillary Clinton. (While Gerth told me that the book was thoroughly sourced and “no corrections were sought,” one of its central and explosive claims—that after Bill Clinton’s 1992 election he and Hillary Clinton made a “pact” by which each of them would have eight years in the White House—was in fact hotly disputed, including by one of its putative sources.) None of this, of course, disproves Gerth’s claims about Russiagate. But these controversies should at least have been acknowledged, especially since so much of Gerth’s analysis is not about factual disputes but about the interpretation of facts and their significance.

Much of Gerth’s critique of the media—for instance, of the rush to judgment on the Steele dossier and on various other sensational claims—is very much on target. But the media’s Russiagate-related faults can be seen in two different ways:

(1) The media credulously pursued grave charges against Trump, essentially amounting to treason, that turned out to be nothingburger cooked up by the political opposition.

(2) The media’s sloppiness and sensationalism compromised in some ways an important story of very real political malfeasance in TrumpWorld (and in the Kremlin).

The second version seems to me essentially correct. (Indeed, I criticized Trump/Russia sensationalism and sloppy or biased reporting in 2017 and 2018.) Overwrought claims about Trump as Putin’s puppet or a Russian asset groomed since the late 1980s overshadowed less dramatic but deeply disturbing facts. Specifically: During the 2016 campaign, Trump and his closest associates welcomed (and, in the case of Stone’s communications with WikiLeaks, likely actively solicited) Kremlin-sponsored actions intended to damage the Democratic presidential candidate; these actions included the hacking and leaking of Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign materials—which is to say they amounted to an adversarial power’s attack on an American political organization; and, during his presidency, Trump repeatedly and assiduously tried to downplay or deny Russian meddling, often attacking American intelligence in the process.

(Notably, Gerth, who interviewed Trump twice for his investigation, reports that the former guy still believes Putin was more credible than Obama-era U.S. intelligence chiefs James Clapper, John Brennan, and James Comey. Gerth even acknowledges that in their interview, Trump contradicted Kellyanne Conway’s claim in her 2022 memoir that he misspoke when he seemed to disparage U.S. intelligence agencies during his famous meeting with Putin in Helsinki. He quotes Trump as saying, “I was disparaging them; who would I trust more? Comey, Clapper, Brennan, and the American sleaze or Putin?” Trump himself posted a comment last week making that same disturbing point.)

These facts of the Kremlin’s interference and Trump’s complicity are still being minimized and spun away—and not only by Trump supporters, but also by the anti-anti-Trump camp. “All of these things were bad, but none of them should have caused the media and investigatory conflagration that ensued,” asserts Rich Lowry in a defense of Gerth’s Russiagate piece in National Review. Lowry’s reasoning is that, firstly, Russian meddling had minimal if any effects, and secondly, Trump’s willingness to accept it was no different from Hillary Clinton’s willingness to accept “Russian-sourced research”—that is, the Steele dossier—as a weapon against her opponent.

The second claim relies on some egregious moral equivalency. The Steele dossier, for all its flaws, was opposition research compiled for an American political organization by a retired intelligence officer of the United Kingdom—a power allied to the United States—on the basis of information supplied by Russian sources. Can its use be equated with an American political candidate accepting assistance from an adversarial power seeking to help install him in the White House? I can understand why those Russiagate skeptics who tend to see American power as fundamentally evil—like Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, or Aaron Maté—would accept this kind of equivalency. (In 2018, Greenwald unabashedly told the New Yorker that even if Putin himself ordered the DNC hacking and even if top-level Trump advisers were directly involved in disseminating the hacked emails, it was still “standard shit.”) Does Lowry take the same view?

As for the first claim, it’s far from the slam dunk Lowry seems to think it is. Yes, it’s extremely unlikely that the noxious activities of Russian trolls and bots had much impact as far as actual voting. But Lowry’s assertion that the hack-and-leak operation, even if connected to the Kremlin, likewise “had no impact on the outcome of the election” since “Hillary Clinton was not a meaningful participant” in the DNC emails is much too overconfident. Whether or not Clinton’s own emails were involved, the WikiLeaks disclosures were not only orchestrated in a way that created the impression of small anti-Clinton bombshells going off every day: They also advanced the narrative that the DNC “rigged” the primaries to steal the nomination from Bernie Sanders and hand it to Clinton, the establishment candidate. (That narrative, by the way, was entirely false: the supposedly incriminating DNC emails were mainly exchanged after Clinton had already secured the nomination, and were mainly about countering Sanders’s claims that the DNC had worked to deny it to him.) A FiveThirtyEight analysis in December 2016 concluded, analyzing national polling data, that the WikiLeaks disclosures may have contributed to Clinton’s loss, though there was no definitive evidence. Given how close Trump’s margin of victory was in contested states such as Michigan, it is entirely possible, for instance, that some progressives’ decision to stay home because they believed Bernie Sanders was robbed made a difference.

Lowry also ignores the fact that Trump certainly believed the WikiLeaks disclosures were highly damaging to Hillary Clinton. In the last month of the campaign, he mentioned WikiLeaks 141 times at 56 campaign events, making such famous comments as, “WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks,” “This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove,” and “This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable. It tells you the inner heart; you gotta read it.”

Some Democrats, shocked by Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in November 2016, did fall back on exaggerated claims of Russian interference—including claims that there had been actual vote-tampering—instead of examining Clinton’s very real flaws as a candidate. But it is no less true that plenty of conservatives have used the supposed “Russia hoax” to promote narratives of Republican victimization. Regrettably, Gerth seems to lend credence to one such narrative when he suggests that Trump’s outlandish 2020 election-theft claims stem from his belief that he was the victim of a “witch hunt” over his dealings with Russia.

A week before the release of Gerth’s CJR article, the American Conservative put the “Russia hoax” narrative to a no less insidious use with an article by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos arguing that this supposed hoax is behind the American public’s support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine after the Russian invasion. Vlahos even insinuates that the notion of Russian meddling (which she reduces solely to the influence of trolls and bots, completely ignoring the DNC hack and WikiLeaks in accordance with the right-wing Russiagate skeptic playbook) was deliberately cultivated in order to secure more public support for an aggressive American stance vis-à-vis-Russia—which she suggests is responsible for the war in Ukraine and may now be dragging us to the brink of nuclear war.

Examining and critiquing the media’s handling of Russiagate is important and necessary. But it can be done without downplaying Russia’s very real assaults on election integrity in the U.S. and in other democracies. Otherwise, the “Russia hoax” quickly becomes an excuse for everything from Trump’s attempt to subvert the 2020 election to the enabling of Russia’s foreign aggression: in other words, the last refuge of scoundrels.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.