Editor’s Note, December 12, 2019: David Corn’s column shows why it’s so important for journalists to speak the truth without obfuscation. Mother Jones can do that because readers have our back. David has more to say about that below, and we hope you’ll consider making a year-end donation to support journalism that can call out liars without fear, favor, or false equivalency. –Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief
This is how it works. The big lie. The endless spin. The outright denial of facts. Again and again and again. The complete destruction and devaluation of truth for political gain. Overwhelm reality with fiction, concoctions, and false narratives. Embrace deceit and duplicity.
For rogues, scoundrels, tyrants, princes and princesses of corruption—and their henchmen—the truth is a threat. It must be crushed. It must be vanquished. Abuse of power cannot exist alongside accountability. Malefactors cannot survive within an atmosphere of truth. It is a suffocating poison for them. So they must deceive, and they must dissemble. That is what the United States’ top law enforcement officer demonstrated this week.
Following the release of the Justice Department inspector general’s report on the origins and management of the Trump-Russia investigation, Attorney General William Barr went into full Oceania war-is-peace mode to erase truth in order to protect and soothe his dear leader, Donald Trump. Moments after the report appeared—it concludes the FBI had been right to open an investigation of interactions between Trump associates and Russia in 2016, as Moscow was attacking the US election to help Trump win the White House—Barr challenged the findings. He declared that he knew better than the IG and that the FBI had launched the probe “on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken.” Barr noted that his own hand-picked federal prosecutor, John Durham, would be conducting a separate review and have the final word. And the next day, Barr continued his brazen campaign of disinformation. In an interview with NBC News, he called the FBI investigation “completely baseless.” Barr depicted the probe as a “danger” to civil liberties and the American political system. He was twisting up into down.
We now interrupt this article for a crucial message. Here is the honest to goodness truth: The attorney general of the United States, our nation’s top law enforcement officer, is lying to cover up serious wrongdoing by the president. It’s critical that we dig harder than ever in 2020 and get the fundamental truth out to as many people as possible. I hope you’ll help us do that with a year-end donation so we can reach our big $600,000 goal this month. Support from readers like you allows us to pursue kickass, independent journalism that isn’t hindered by the desires or demands of advertisers or well-heeled owners. – D.C.
The IG report does detail numerous errors FBI officials and agents committed regarding one surveillance warrant used in the investigation. But the 476-page report repeatedly shows that the FBI engaged in careful deliberation to determine there was cause for the probe. FBI counterintelligence officials had initiated the investigation after obtaining information from Australia in late July 2016 noting that George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, had told an Aussie diplomat months earlier that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton that it could anonymously release to help Trump’s campaign.
The FBI received this report after Democratic National Committee emails stolen by hackers had been released by WikiLeaks to hurt Clinton at the start of the Democrats’ convention and it had become clear to the bureau that Moscow was behind this. Determining if there were contacts between a Trump campaign adviser and Russia—as Russia was assaulting an American election—was a matter the FBI justifiably believed deserved investigation. “We interviewed all of the senior FBI officials who participated in these discussions about their reactions to the [Australian] information and assessments of it as predication for Crossfire Hurricane [the FBI’s name for the investigation],” the report says. “Each of these officials told us the information warranted opening a counterintelligence investigation.” According to the IG, Bill Priestap, then the assistant director of the bureau’s counterintelligence division, “told us that the combination of the [Australian] information and the FBI’s ongoing cyber intrusion investigation of the DNC hacks created a counterintelligence concern that the FBI was ‘obligated’ to investigate.”
So the FBI opened an investigation, and, as several FBI officials told the IG, proceeded cautiously. The report notes that Trisha Anderson, the FBI’s deputy general counsel, “told us that the investigation began on July 31 with covert investigative techniques to be ‘very quiet’ prior to the election. We were told that the team’s concern was that if the information about the investigation became public, it would disrupt the investigative efforts and could potentially impact the 2016 US elections.”
The FBI quickly concluded there were several points of possible contact between the Trump campaign and Russia that warranted scrutiny, and they focused on Papadopoulos, Carter Page, another foreign policy adviser for the campaign, Paul Manafort, then the campaign chairman, and Michael Flynn, a top national security adviser to Trump.
It chose well. Page, an unorthodox and ardent defender of Vladimir Putin and Russia, had recently been in Moscow, giving a speech and hobnobbing with prominent Russians, and he had previously been courted by Russian intelligence as a source. (After investigating Page’s trip to Moscow, Special Counsel Robert Mueller would later declare, “Page’s activities in Russia…were not fully explained.”) Flynn had been paid to attend and speak in December 2015 at a Moscow celebration of RT, a Russian propaganda media outlet, where he was seated at a table with Putin. And Manafort had made millions of dollars as a consultant for a corrupt and pro-Putin president of Ukraine, and he had a longtime business associate suspected by the FBI of being a Russian intelligence asset with whom he stayed in contact while running Trump’s campaign. Manafort had been using this fellow to pass inside information about the Trump campaign to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch presumably close to Putin and to whom Manafort owed millions. (At the time the FBI began Crossfire Hurricane, Manafort was already on the bureau’s to-do list. In January 2016, the FBI had started an investigation of Manafort for money laundering and tax evasion—which would end up with Manafort in a federal prison.)
With hindsight, it is now clear that there was even more cause for the FBI investigation than bureau officials realized at the time. Trump for much of the campaign had been secretly negotiating to develop a tower project in Moscow that could have earned him hundreds of millions of dollars, and his business had been in contact with Putin’s office, seeking assistance for the endeavor. Yet Trump lied on the campaign trail and hid this venture from the voting public, noting repeatedly he had nothing to do with Russia. (This was a counterintelligence concern in its own right, for Trump’s deceit could have been used by Moscow as a point of leverage.) Trump’s top advisers—Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr.—had in early June 2016 secretly met with a Russian emissary whom they were told would deliver them derogatory material on Clinton as part of a secret Kremlin effort to help Trump’s campaign. And as Special Counsel Robert Mueller would reveal later, throughout the summer of 2016, after public reports had identified Russia as the culprit in the hack-and-dump attack aimed to influence election in Trump’s favor, Papadopoulos was trying to set up a secret back-channel between the Trump campaign and Putin’s office. Moreover, Mueller would also disclose that in early August, days after the FBI investigation was opened, Manafort met with that business associate allegedly tied to Russian intelligence and supplied him with internal polling data from the campaign and discussed with him a pro-Putin peace plan for Ukraine.
As all these interactions were occurring privately, Trump was publicly helping the Russians by welcoming, denying, and outright requesting its intervention in the US election. Mueller’s report essentially depicted Trump as a dissembler in this regard: “Trump responded to questions about possible connections to Russia by denying any business involvement in Russia—even though the Trump Organization had pursued a business project in Russia as late as June 2016. Trump also expressed skepticism that Russia had hacked the emails at the same time as he and other Campaign advisors privately sought information [redacted] about any further WikiLeaks releases.” And the recent trial of Roger Stone—the longtime Trump aid who was found guilty of lying to Congress and witness tampering—produced information suggesting Trump lied to Mueller (which could be a crime) when he denied recalling any discussions with Stone in 2016 about WikiLeaks’ plans regarding the release of Democratic material stolen by Russian operatives.
Speaking of Roger Stone: I have to brag about my colleague Dan Friedman—our foreign influence and national security reporter in the DC bureau. Through tireless work, Dan tracked down text messages between Roger Stone and Randy Credico that documented Stone’s attempt to mislead congressional investigators, which led to his recent conviction in a federal court. Dan’s reporting was quoted in Stone’s indictment and apparently influenced the special counsel’s investigation. It’s only because we asked readers to fund a new position focused on foreign influence that Dan was able join my team in Washington. Your support means we can hire reporters like Dan and give them the time and space they need to go deep and get the great stories. It took Dan 10 months of working a source to obtain those text messages and expose them to the public. Our bureau, thanks to support from readers like you, has several reporters like Dan who will go the distance to unearth the important stories that are most needed these days. And if you can help us, we could hire more fierce and dogged reporters to chase after the corruption, wrongdoings, and misdeeds that escape media attention. –D.C.
Barr should be posed this query: as the United States was undergoing a Russian attack designed to undermine the election and boost Trump, should the FBI have done nothing about the possible contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia or its cut-outs? The clandestine assault on American democracy posed the most profound danger. But Barr, in service of Trump, resists recognizing this reality, the one in which Trump aided and abetted the Russian attack and was elected with assistance from Putin. To remove this stain, which is indeed a challenge to Trump’s legitimacy, Barr must delegitimize the FBI’s investigation. There can be no other Russia narrative other than the one in which the supreme leader is the the unfair target of history’s worst witch hunt, the victim of a terrible hoax.
With his NBC interview, Barr demonstrated how far he will go to cast the FBI and its investigation in a nefarious light—and to dismiss the Russia scandal. He claimed that “in today’s world, presidential campaigns are frequently in contact with foreign persons.” Not really. Not at all. And not in the way that the Trump campaign was. Most presidential campaigns are not led by money launderers who are in contact with Putin-friendly oligarchs and who are meeting secretly with former business partners suspected of working with Russian intelligence. Most campaigns do not seek to set up private communications with foreign adversaries while these countries are attacking the United States. Barr also claimed “in most campaigns there are signs of illegal foreign money coming in.” No, that’s not true, either. But if it were, why is Barr’s Justice Department not on a crusade to root out this criminal activity?
Barr is a sophisticated player. He knows what he is doing. He’s telling whoppers to make it seem the FBI over-reacted, perhaps even criminally, and did so out of politically fueled malice. He’s flinging falsehoods to cover for Trump. And Barr has unleashed this other investigation led by Durham—who in a highly unusual move on Monday released a statement challenging the IG’s findings—to get the answers (or untruths) he wants. Two plus two must equal five.
The shocking thing is that there is nothing shocking in the Trump era about an attorney general massacring the truth in this most unabashed fashion. Barr, who scheduled a $30,000-plus holiday party at Trump’s Washington, DC, hotel, has been distorting reality for Trump throughout his tenure as attorney general. Most notably, to defend Trump and support his phony no collusion/no obstruction mantra, Barr misrepresented the findings of Mueller’s report before the document was released. Proving loyalty to Trump is Barr’s top mission. And this week he’s earning his keep.
In a recent speech claiming that progressives do not honor norms and the rule of law in political battles, Barr, mustering all the smugness and self-satisfaction a human being can, stated, “conservatives tend to have more scruple over their political tactics and rarely feel that the ends justify the means.” He continued, “This is as it should be, but there is no getting around the fact that this puts conservatives at a disadvantage.” Yet Barr is lying for the reason liars usually lie: to gain an advantage. His partisan ends and his deceptive means are transparent. But that’s hardly a problem for Barr, for as he takes steps that shield Trump (and that assist Moscow), he insists that he is moved solely by a devotion to fair play and constitutional safeguards. That is, he lies.
Thanks for reading this column: I hope it shows you why fearless reporting that doesn’t pull any punches is so important right now.
I’m a journalist, not a professional fundraiser. But I know this fundamental truth: We can only do this work if supporters like you have our back. And because we answer only to you—our readers—we can reject the insidious “view from nowhere” that enables liars, propagandists, and bad-faith actors like William Barr.
I’ve been in DC long enough to know that what’s going on now is not normal partisan gamesmanship. It’s treachery, full stop. It’s a war on norms and the truth. It’s aiding and abetting a foreign power. In my DC bureau, reporters and editors are working hard every day to counter disinformation and get the facts and the real story to as many people as we can.
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