The possibility of collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and agents of the Russian government came into sharper focus last week, as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III brought his first indictments and disclosed a surprising plea-bargain with a junior member of the campaign foreign policy team, George Papadopoulos. The latter seemed to promise plenty more to come.
Mueller was met by a chorus of calls from Rupert Murdoch’s media empire that he resign.
The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal called for Mueller to step down on grounds that “he lacks the critical distance to conduct a credible probe of the [FBI] that he ran for a dozen years” (subscription required). New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin and Fox News television commentator Sean Hannity followed.
Why probe the FBI? Because allegations developed by a British private investigator in a probe of Trump background activities in Russia over the years overlapped with the bureau’s own alarms. The investigation, financed by the Washington, D.C., private investigator Fusion GPS, was conducted by London’s Orbis Business Intelligence, another private firm. It was initially commissioned by The Washington Free Beacon website, which is supported by conservative hedge fund proprietor Paul Singer. After Trump secured the Republican nomination, the investigation was paid for by the Clinton campaign and acquired the sobriquet by which it is now known – the Dossier.
“Did the Bureau use [its] disinformation to trigger its Trump Probe?” asked the WSJ editorialists on October 25. It was a striking departure from their stance of three weeks before: “Moscow meddled, but no hard evidence of Trump Collusion.”
The issue was effectively joined when New York Times columnist Bret Stephens called out his former WSJ editorial board employers yesterday in a column headlined “The Sleazy Case against Mueller’s Probe.”
Some brief introductions:
Stephens, 43, having denounced Trump vigorously throughout the campaign, quit the WSJ last spring and joined the Times.
Christopher Steele: the British operative who co-founded Orbis, in 2010, is an ex-M.I 6 Moscow field agent and former head of the British foreign intelligence service’s Russia desk.
John Sipher, a former CIA station chief whom Stephens quoted extensively, assayed Steele’s dossier in September in a detailed article on the website, Just Security, edited by a pair of law professors and supported by Open Society Foundations and Atlantic Philanthropies. Sipher wrote:
Well before any public knowledge of these events, [Steele’s report] identified multiple elements of the Russian operation, including a cyber campaign, and other Trump affiliates to discuss the receipt of stolen documents. Mr. Steele could not have known that the Russians stole information on Hillary Clinton, or that they were considering means to weaponized them, all of which turned out to be stunningly accurate.
Stephens made three points:
- The WSJ’s contention that the Steele dossier has been debunked is itself “discreditable to the point of being dishonest.” Describing GPS Fusion as a “sleazy operator” only compounded the misrepresentation.
- The WSJ’s lack of curiosity is hard to fathom. Why did the [Trump] campaign pursue a course of semi-secret outreach to Russia? What was the Russian government hoping to achieve with various forms of outreach of its own? “Since when did conservatives suddenly become conveniently bored with getting to the bottom of Russian conspiracies?”
- The WSJ’s countercharge, that the real collusion was between Hillary Clinton and the Russians, that Steele was retailing stories that the Kremlin had made up to harm Trump, is obvious flim-flam. Hiring private investigators to dig up dirt on the opposition is common practice in politics – very different from eagerly accepting it from foreign government. The Russian intelligence officer who has been frequently linked to Steele’s dossier as its single most highly placed source was found dead in the back seat of his car in Moscow the day after Christmas.
True, the editorial board of the WSJ and the leadership of its news pages have been at each other since 1972, when Robert Bartley took over the editorial pages and pioneered what he called “reported editorials.” The antagonism took on new intensity after Rupert Murdoch bought Dow Jones Co. from Bancroft family heirs, in 2007.
The Times, too, often seems to be at war with itself, though less conspicuously, ever since it chose not to replace its public editor, eliminating the position of the only newsroom staffer specifically empowered to talk back to the editors. Much of its force recently has been spent trying to show that Russian efforts on social media tipped the election result. Masha Gessen, author and journalist at The New Yorker, no dove where Vladimir Putin is concerned, gave that argument the credibility it deserves when she scanned Russian media and wrote last week:
Several former staff members of a St. Petersburg company widely known as the Kremlin’s “troll factory” gave interviews to different Russian-language media outlets last month. One told TV Rain, an independent Web-based television channel, that hired trolls were obligated to watch “House of Cards,” presumably to gain an understanding of American politics. At the same time, trolls took English classes and classes on American politics. In the former, they learned the difference between the present-perfect and past-simple tenses (“I have done” versus “I did,” for example); in the latter they learned that if the subject concerned L.G.B.T. rights, then the troll should use religious rhetoric: “You should always write that sodomy is a sin, and that will bring you a couple of dozen ‘likes.’ ”
Another Russian outlet, RBC, published the most detailed investigative report yet on the “troll factory.” RBC found that the company had a budget of roughly $2.2 million and employed between eight hundred and nine hundred people, about ten per cent of whom worked on American politics. The trolls’ job was not so much to aid a particular Presidential candidate as to wreak havoc by posting on controversial subjects. Their success was measured by the number of times a post was shared, retweeted, or liked. RBC calculated that, at most, two dozen of the trolls’ posts scored audiences of a million or more; the vast majority had less than a thousand page views. On at least a couple of occasions, the trolls organized protests in the U.S. simply by strategically posting the dates and times on Facebook. In Charlotte, South Carolina (sic), an entity calling itself BlackMattersUS scheduled a protest and reached out to an actual local activist who ended up organizing it and a BlackMattersUS contact gave him a bank card to pay for sound equipment.
These reports don’t exactly support the assumption that the Russian effort was designed to get Donald Trump elected President… Is Trump any less President because Russians paid for some ads on Facebook? Is there any reason, at this point, to think that a tiny drop in the sea of Facebook ads changed any American votes? The answer to… these questions is: no, not really.
In the absence of a Senate Select Committee of the sort that helped forge the initial consensus on the Watergate burglary and its subsequent cover-up, the newspapers will continue to hammer out the narrative between them. The investigation itself is in Mueller’s hands, and those of his team.
As I read the Statement of the Offense of the Papadopoulos agreement last week, especially its “Timeline of Selected Events,” I concluded it has become much less likely that the president will serve out his term.