By Will Banyan (Copyright © 21 February 2020)
TRUMP: Look, Putin…… from everything I see, has no respect for this person.
CLINTON: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.
TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.
CLINTON: And it’s pretty clear…
TRUMP: You’re the puppet!
Donald J. Trump & Hillary Clinton,
Third Presidential Debate, October 19, 2016
“…I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected.”
President Donald J. Trump tweet, 30 May 2019
the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016
Presidential Election earlier last year elicited an abundance of earnest commentary
from various parties. For President Donald Trump and his supporters the release
of the redacted version of the report on 18 April 2019, which had been preceded
a few weeks earlier by a carefully crafted letter by Attorney General William
Barr summarising its main findings (March
24, 2019), this was a moment to savour. “No
Collusion, No Obstruction!”, Trump tweeted; adding in a subsequent
posting that Mueller had found “there was NO COLLUSION WITH RUSSIA. The
Russia Hoax is dead!”
favorite conspiracy theory is now dead, it is buried,” announced
Fox News presenter and Trump
Sean Hannity, “There was no collusion, no conspiracy, no obstruction, nothing.”
Pro-Trump intellectual gadfly Victor Davis Hanson, writing on the American Greatness
issue with the “Mueller fiasco” for confirming what was “self-evident from the outset of this
ill-starred inquest: Donald Trump did not ‘collude’ with the Russians to defeat Hillary
Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway congratulated
herself for having successfully “resist[ed]
the overwhelming pressure to join the conspiracy theorists…” Lee Smith over on The Tablet
27, 2019), celebrated that the “entire collusion theory” had now been “publicly
and definitely proclaimed to be a hoax” by Mueller, the very individual
the “elite pundit class” had placed their “hopes of redemption.” Celebrating
the downfall of the “Trump-Russia collusion fairy tale”, pro-Trump commentator,
Julie Kelly, admonished “Citizen Collusion Truthers” and warned that: “History
will not be kind to the Trump-Russia collusion truthers in Congress, the expert
class, Hollywood, and the media” (American
Greatness, Apr. 04, 2019).
Mueller’s report, wrote noted leftist skeptic Glenn Greenwald had “obliterated…in an undeniable and definitive manner” the “conspiracy theory that has dominated U.S. political discourse for almost three years.” According to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, Mueller’s report makes it “crystal clear” that “[t]here was no Trump-Russia conspiracy….” Mueller’s findings, mused another progressive skeptic, Aaron Maté, “should finally put to rest the ‘collusion’ theory that has consumed the mainstream media and the political class for more than two years” (The Nation, Mar. 26, 2019). Indeed, noted Maté in a follow-up piece, Mueller’s report not only refuted the “sinister collusion plot”, but “presents what amounts to an extended indictment of the conspiracy theory itself” (The Nation, Apr. 26, 2019). “[T]hose advancing the conspiracy theory that the Kremlin has infiltrated the highest levels of the US government were wrong, and those of us voicing skepticism of this were right,” declared self-styled Australian “rogue journalist” Caitlin Johnstone.
chorus was accompanied by harsh commentary predicting that proponents of the
Russia-Trump collusion theory would, like all conspiracists faced with
information that debunked their claims, inevitably invent reasons to reject Mueller’s
findings. Conspiracy theory researcher and Qanon-watcher Travis View, for example,
warned in the Washington Post (Mar.
26, 2019), that people who held “unrealistic expectations” of the Mueller’s
investigation “will dig deep into conspiracy theorizing rather than adjust to
the new facts.” He claimed to have already detected a “QAnon-like rejection of
reality” amongst some “Russia-gate” pundits. Brian Feldman at New York Magazine, (Mar.
28, 2019) similarly noted that Barr’s letter had “[n]ot been great” for the
credibility of the “Russiagate gang.” Feldman portrayed them as grifters who
built online brands based on “wild speculation and invented facts” who would,
nevertheless, find new ways to continue to theorize:
The Mueller diviners who have seen their predictions and promises go up in flames are now pivoting from knowing everything to pointing out everything we don’t know. We don’t know what’s in sealed indictments, we don’t know what’s in the actual report, we don’t know what other investigations into Trump are uncovering. After making grand promises and failing to sit and wait, the #resistance tweeters would like you to sit and wait, listening to them craft ever more fantastical meta-realities…
The collusion skeptics
and Trump sympathizers were also quick to deride the “Russiagate truthers” as grimly
hanging onto their now discredited theories, as they desperately tried to
ignore or explain away the inconvenient facts uncovered by Mueller. These
“Collusion Truthers” needed to be treated with “scorn and ridicule”, tweeted
a gloating Donald Trump Jr. Amber Athey at the Daily Caller (Mar.
30, 2019) claimed that “Democrats and the establishment media” were already
“floating conspiracy theories” about Mueller’s investigation “in order to
discredit his finding of no collusion.” National Review columnist Deroy
Murdock lambasted “Democratic flat-Earthers” for their refusal to accept the
findings of the Special Counsel, and the House and Senate Intelligence
Committees “that ‘Trump-Russia collusion’ is a hoax” (National
Review, Mar. 29, 2019). On twitter, a
magnanimous Glenn Greenwald admitted to feeling “pity” for those people who
“still cling to the hope that they were right all along about Trump/Russia
conspiracy theory…” After reading Barr’s letter, “Bernhard” of the Moon of
Alabama blog confidently concluded:
The case is closed. Neither was there a Trump campaign ‘collusion’ with anything Russia nor was there obstruction by the Trump administration.
Unfortunately Russiagaters will not give up on their conspiracy theories anytime soon.
in the face of Barr’s brief letter summarising the main conclusions of
Mueller’s report and the subsequent release of the “lightly” redacted version
of that document, which appears to refute the “collusion” accusation at the
centre of the “Russia-gate” narrative, seems compelling. But there are good
reasons to dispute this narrative of the fact-averse “Collusion Truthers” supposedly
rejecting Mueller’s findings for more personally and politically comforting
conspiracy theories. On the contrary, the worst outbreak of “Trutherism” has
been amongst the “Russia-gate” skeptics who have clung to their “Deep State
coup” theories even though Mueller’s findings did little to directly support
for this is fourfold: first, in
their uncritical embrace of Barr’s highly misleading letter which sought to
frame the narrative about Mueller’s findings as unequivocally exonerating
Trump; second, following the release
of the Special Counsel’s report, in their questioning and rejection of many of
Mueller’s more nuanced and troubling findings about the extent of Russian
interference and interactions with the Trump campaign; third, their
strong support for US Attorney John Durham’s inquiry into the origins of the
FBI’s investigation in the clear expectation it would confirm the “Deep State
Coup” theory; and finally, in the continuing invocation of the “Deep
State coup” conspiracy theory to explain why Trump was (albeit unsuccessfully)
impeached over the Ukraine scandal.
The Secret Team
“conspiracy theory”, though seemingly neutral, has long
served as a term of derision.2
As a writer for the Pacific
Standard once observed, “the term suggests a certain level of
looniness, conjuring images of paranoid people struggling to find sinister
patterns in random events.”3
Certainly, when many media commentators and academics describe something as a “conspiracy
theory” it is in reference to types of analysis, specifically those positing
sinister cabals behind significant events, which they regard as inherently
illogical, empirically defective, and ultimately divorced from reality.
Controversial commentator Daniel Pipes, in his book Conspiracy (1997),
for example, defined “conspiracy theory” as the “fear of a non-existent
conspiracy” (p.21). In his Voodoo Histories (2009), journalist David
Aaronovitch describes conspiracy theories as: “the unnecessary assumption of
conspiracy when other explanations are more probable” (p.5). According to
Professor Robert Brotherton from the University of London, a conspiracy theory
…an unverified claim of conspiracy which is not the most plausible account of an event or situation, and with sensationalistic subject matter or implications. In addition, the claim will typically postulate unusually sinister and competent conspirators. Finally, the claim is based on weak kinds of evidence, and is epistemically self-insulating against disconfirmation (PsyPag Quarterly, September 2013, p.9).
The alternate perspective
is that “conspiracy theory” is a label applied quite deliberately to discredit and
delegitimise analysis that exposes abuses of power. This view is articulated by
Professor Lance deHaven-Smith from Florida State University,
author of Conspiracy Theory in America (2013). The term “conspiracy
theory”, he contends, is in fact a “pejorative put-down” employed by “political
elites to suppress mass suspicions” that may arise in response to “shocking
political crimes” committed by those same elites (p.9). More recently,
Australian academic David Coady argued that,
the net effect of terms such as “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracism” is to silence people who are the victims of conspiracy, or who (rightly or wrongly) suspect conspiracies may be occurring. These terms serve to herd respectable opinion in ways that suit the interests of the powerful (The Conversation, Sep. 13, 2018).
In their profligate
use of “conspiracy theory”, the champions of “Russiagate” skepticism clearly seek
to both discredit the entire Trump-Russia collusion narrative as baseless
speculation, andsmear its advocates as irrational and deranged. Of
course, there are some “Russiagate” theories, particularly those that paint
Trump as a long-term,
utterly compliant Russian
puppet (now obviously beholden to Putin), that
arguably warrant the “conspiracy theory” label. Proponents of these more
extreme collusion scenarios include such luminaries
Abramson, and the infamously unhinged
Louise Mensch. The lodestar for these theorists (though not all refer to
it) is the so-called Steele Dossier, produced by former British intelligence
officer Christopher Steele on behalf of Fusion GPS, a Washington DC based
research and strategic intelligence firm, for the Clinton campaign. The dossier,
only small fragments of which have been verified, is filled with lurid claims
about Trump’s sexual deviancy, corrupt dealings in Russia, and deep involvement
in the hacking of the DNC.
Yet, if we
apply the criteria employed by academics to describe and identify conspiracy
theories, much of the “Deep State coup” narrative also warrants that same
despised label, probably to an even greater extent than the Russia-Trump
Collusion narrative. This becomes evident if we consider the salient features
of the “Deep State coup” narrative, starting with the description of the
alleged conspirators behind the “coup” against Trump.
A key feature
of a “conspiracy belief”, according to Professor Michael Barkun in his A
Culture of Conspiracy (2003), is that “an organization made up of
individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some sort of
malevolent end” (p.3). As the late Richard Hofstadter observed in his classic essay
on the “Paranoid Style”:
The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional) (Harper’s Magazine, Nov 1964).
Jonathan Kay in his book, Among the Truthers (2011), for example, noted
that 9/11 “Truthers” had a particularly Manichean view of US power structures:
In the Truther vision of America, our elected government is nothing but a smokescreen for Deep State actors—arms dealers, oil companies, neoconservative ideologues, Strangelovian Pentagon warmongers—who pull our elected politicians puppet strings, and control our society at all levels through bribery, murder and extortion (p.xxi; emphasis added).
The “Deep State
Coup” counter-narrative also promotes a sinister interpretation of US power
structures, claiming that the entire “Russiagate” affair is a devious plot implemented
by a cabal of Democrats and the “Deep State”, represented by corrupt law
enforcement and intelligence agencies, aided by a compliant and complicit
mainstream media, to overthrow Trump with a false “collusion narrative”. This
can be seen in the description of the alleged plot by Patrick Henningsen, founder
and editor of the 21st Century
…a very real cabal comprised of embedded civil servants, intelligence agents and partisan political operatives in the media – all working to fabricate a grand Russian conspiracy designed to discredit and unseat the 45th President of the United States of America (New Dawn, May/June 2019, p.16; emphasis added).
A similar combination of conspirators
was also identified in Caitlin Johnstone’s post-Barr victory dance. “Russiagate”,
she wrote, was
a pernicious lie advanced by secretive government agencies who’ve been plotting to shove Russia off the world stage since the fall of the Soviet Union, by the Democrats who’ve had a vested interest in avoiding accountability for their failures and malfeasance in the 2016 election, and by the mass media who’ve been reaping extreme profits by peddling the clickbait sensationalist conspiracy theory that the Kremlin has infiltrated the highest levels of the US government [emphasis added].
duration of the FBI and Special Counsel investigations into this affair, this
conspiratorial counter-narrative has a been a constant theme in countless
articles and social media posts on websites and publications as varied as Gateway Pundit, Infowars, RealClearPolitics,
World Net Daily, American Greatness, The
Federalist, Consortium News and Judicial Watch. Other
proponents of note include: Fox News contributor Sara A. Carter,; some anonymous twitter
accounts, particularly Techno
Fog and Undercover Huber; and
a number of lawyers involved in defending Trump and his associates,
Flynn’s current lawyer Sidney
Powell, and husband-and-wife
team Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing. It has also been promoted by
mainstream conservative outlets such as the National
Review (by Andrew McCarthy and the recently
pardoned Conrad Black), Fox News (specifically Sean Hannity and Tucker
Carlson), The Hill (in articles by
John Solomon), the Wall Street Journal (mainly by Kimberly Strassel), and
Tablet (Lee Smith).
for instance, a former long-time member of the secretive Bilderberg Group,5
itself the object of conspiratorial fascination since the 1950s, accused the
directors of a number of US intelligence agencies of “trying to rig and then to
undo” the result of the 2016 election by promoting the “fraud of collusion” (American
Greatness, Jul. 18, 2018). At the heart of the “Trump–Russian collusion
argument”, according to Black, was the Steele dossier, which was a “pack of
lies”; but the Democrats were successful in “subverting high levels of the
intelligence agencies and the Justice Department and FBI to pursue this canard
with the zeal they did” (National
Review, Sep. 12, 2018).
State” coup conspiracy theory has also been the subject of numerous books, many
written by Trump supporters and surrogates, mostly from the Fox News stable. Key
examples include: Judge Jeanine Pirro, Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The
Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy (2018); Dan Bongino and D.C.
McAllister, Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald J. Trump (2018);
Gregg Jarrett’s The Russia Hoax (2018) and Witch Hunt (2019); Lee
Smith’s The Plot Against the President (2019); and Andrew McCarthy’s Ball
of Collusion: The Plot to Rig and Election and Destroy a Presidency (2019).
Although claiming not to be endorsing a “conspiracy theory”, Bongino and
McAllister nevertheless argue there were “intersections among the Clinton
Campaign, the Obama Administration, intelligence agencies and foreign
operatives” that created the “false narrative” that nearly cost Trump the
presidency (Spygate, p.xii). In his first book Jarrett dismisses the
Russia collusion narrative as a “hoax manufactured by unscrupulous high-ranking
officials within the FBI and the Department of Justice” (Russia Hoax,
pp.87-88). According to Judge Pirro:
This plot against Donald Trump and every American who voted for him goes all the way to the top of the previous administration. It was conceived and planned at the top and executed by like-minded Deep Staters in law enforcement, the intelligence community, and their Swamp Party talking heads in the media (Liars, Leakers and Liberals, p.81).
former federal prosecutor and contributing editor to National Review,
offers almost the same formulation of the “real collusion scheme”:
In 2016, President Obama put the awesome powers of the United States government’s law-enforcement and intelligence apparatus in service of the Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential campaign, the Democratic party, and the progressive Beltway establishment. This scheme had two parts…
Plan A was to get Mrs. Clinton elected President of the United States…
Plan B was the insurance policy: an investigation that Donald Trump, in the highly unlikely event he were elected, would be powerless to shut down. An investigation that would simultaneously monitor and taint him. An investigation that internalized Clinton campaign-generated opposition research, limning Trump and his campaign as complicit in Russian espionage. An investigation that would hunt for a crime under the guise of counterintelligence, build an impeachment case under the guise of hunting for a crime, and seek to make Trump un-reelectable under the guise of building an impeachment case (Ball of Collusion, pp.vii-viii; emphasis added).
this theory in a slew of recent publications and other media are a motley
collective of individuals questioned and, in some cases, indicted and convicted
by Mueller’s investigation. These include: Jerome Corsi’s Killing the Deep State (2018) and Silent No More (2019); Ted Malloch’s The Plot to Destroy Trump (2018); George Papadopoulos’s Deep State Target (2019); and Corey
Lewandowski and David Bossie’s Trump’s
Enemies (2018). In his book, Killing
the Deep State, for instance, Corsi claimed that:
President Trump is the target of coup d’etat being undertaken by the Deep State, including the CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies that maintain a commitment to a globalist New World Order (Killing the Deep State, p.146).
While Papadopoulos asserted in his
The deep state is the movement of anti-Trump operations in America’s three branches of government who have been working against Donald Trump, his campaign, and his administration to strip it of authority (Deep State Target, p.112).
Similar theories have been promoted
by the supposedly leftist critics of “Russiagate”. Greenwald, for example, has repeatedly
accused the “Deep State”, primarily the CIA, of not only opposing Trump, but
actively “subverting” him. Pointing to the implicit endorsement of the Steele
dossier by US intelligence agencies, Greenwald claimed that the “military
industrial complex” that Eisenhower had warned about, was “engaged in open
warfare against a duly elected president” (The
Intercept, Jan. 12, 2017). As he told Democracy
Now in 2017, this was because: “The CIA and the intelligence
community were vehemently in support of Clinton and vehemently opposed to
Trump, from the beginning.” The CIA opposed Trump, Greenwald wrote in the Intercept,
because he had rejected their agenda:
Clinton defended and intended to extend the decades long international
military order on which the CIA and Pentagon’s preeminence depends, while
Trump — through a still-uncertain mix of instability and extremist
conviction — posed a threat to it.6
Greenwald repeated this argument in
an interview with Dazed
in December 2018, where he provided his thoughts on the growing
attractiveness of conspiracy theories, and why people had lost faith in
traditional mainstream sources of information:
Some stem from truth – with the Trump presidency, there is a very powerful faction in Washington, the Deep State, military-industrial complex, the forces of the CIA or FBI, whatever you want to call it, who have been conspiring to subvert the Trump presidency because they dislike the outcome of the election [emphasis added].
Focusing on the leaks of “intercepted
communications” supporting the Russiagate theory, Michael Tracey had expressed
concern that “unelected spooks [were] arrogating to themselves the power to
directly undermine the elected president.” And following Mueller’s indictment
of Russian intelligence officers for hacking the DNC, Aaron Maté suggested
that “[w]hoever supplied the intelligence that has fueled this thing from
the beginning…” and even proposed that US spy agencies were “inventing
intelligence…” for this purpose.
Rush to Judgement
On March 24,
2019, Attorney-General Barr wrote to the heads of the Judiciary Committees in
the US Senate and House of Representatives, to advise of them of the “principal
conclusions” reached by the Special Counsel’s lengthy investigation. On page 2
of his missive, Barr provided this headline finding:
The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
that Mueller’s investigation was part of a diabolical plot aimed at unseating
Trump, the Russiagate skeptics were quick to not only embrace Barr’s initial
letter, but to also assert that it validated the entire “Deep State coup”
theory. Naturally, among those leading the charge was Trump himself. In
addition to repeatedly claiming “total
EXONERATION” by Mueller’s report (Figure 1), Trump complained the
investigation had happened because “a
lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things, very bad
things. I would say treasonous things against our country…”
statements to the press, Trump outlined his view that he was the victim of a
failed conspiracy to overthrow him:
“This was an attempted coup. This was an attempted takedown of a president, and we beat them. We beat them. We fight back, and you know why we fight back? Because I knew how illegal this whole thing was. It was a scam…” (New York Post, Apr. 10, 2019).
It was an
“illegal witch hunt”, an “illegal investigation”, Trump asserted, seeming to
imply that Mueller’s team had committed “treason.” “INVESTIGATE
THE INVESTIGATORS”, “THEY
SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN” Trump blurted in a series of tweets (Figure 2),
ahead of the imminent release of the redacted version of Mueller’s report.
Congressional Representative Devin Nunes, called
for an investigation of the “origins of the investigation” and announced
his plan to refer the “dirty cops” allegedly behind it to Attorney-General Barr.
need to go prison for this”, wrote Charlie Kirk, Founder and President of the
pro-Trump conservative student movement Turning Point USA. “There need to be
consequences for this,” declared
Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson on the news that Mueller had finished:
Once the Mueller report appears and it becomes incontrovertible that, whatever his faults, Donald Trump did not collude with the Russians, the many people who’ve persistently claimed on the basis of no evidence that he did collude with the Russians must be punished. Not indicted or imprisoned, but thoroughly shamed and forced to apologize.
called for punishment, but Mueller’s findings, as reported by Barr were seen as
validating claims the investigation was due to a conspiracy involving the “Deep
State” and the Democrats. Matthew Walther, a columnist for The Week, for example, celebrated
the fact that Mueller “found no evidence of a Russia conspiracy”, which was
no more than an “absurd hypothesis spread by a paid agent of Hillary Clinton’s
presidential campaign.” It was, he asserted in
another piece, a theory based on a series of “bad-faith insinuations” that
had received “the uncritical support of a Washington establishment that resents
In a series of posts on the avowedly pro-Trump American Greatness website, Victor Davis Hanson both celebrated Mueller’s reported finding whilst expressing his hope that those behind the “Russian collusion hoax” would soon be held to account for their “leaking, collusion, lying, and obstruction…” This list of the damned included former CIA Director John Brennan, whom Hanson claimed had “reached out to foreign intelligence services, primary British and Australian, to surveille and entrap Trump aides…” He also claimed “many FBI officials and contacts” had leaked information to the media to support “hit pieces on Russian collusion” as part of a strategy by “Fusion GPS, along with some in the FBI, to seed unverified anti-Trump gossip to warp the election.” These “Washington politcos and administrative state careerists”, he charged, were united by their belief that Trump was “so abhorrent that he should be prevented from winning the 2016 election.” Failing that they aimed to prevent his inauguration or remove him from office.
In a follow-up
article about “progressive plotters” Hanson found fault with those
journalists who failed to blame the real suspects:
No reporter seems to care that Hillary Clinton hired a foreign national to work with other foreign nationals to sabotage, first, her opponent’s campaign, then his transition and his presidency, along with the wink and nod help from key Obama officials at the Department of Justice, State Department, National Security Council, FBI and CIA.
01, 2019) Mollie Hemingway claimed the “Trump-Russia conspiracy” was no
more than an “information operation” originally promoted by Hillary Clinton’s
campaign that was subsequently “picked up by Obama’s intelligence agencies and
spread far and wide by American media…” She accused Obama’s intelligence
officials of briefing the “completely unverified claims” of the Steele Dossier
to Obama and Trump, and then leaking that fact to the media so it would “legitimize
the claims and undermine” Trump. Federalist
contributor, Adam Mill (a non-de-plume for a Kansas City attorney), also
blamed the Steele Dossier: “one cannot escape the fact that this entire
special counsel effort began with a dossier procured by Hillary Clinton to
defeat and (later) inflict revenge on Trump.” They were
joined by Federalist co-founder
Sean Davis who insisted it was in fact Clinton’s campaign who “colluded with
shady Russia oligarchs and sketchy Russian sources to subvert American
democracy…” The entire plot, claimed Davis, was actually the “brainchild” of
Christopher Steele, the former British spy who had produced the infamous
The coterie of
leftist Russiagate skeptics – Greenwald, Maté, Taibbi, and Tracey – in the
midst of their victory laps in the wake of Barr’s letter, also promoted
explanations for the origins of Mueller’s investigation that were remarkably
similar to the Deep State coup theory. Writing in The Nation, for instance, Maté argued that:
Top intelligence officials, both current and retired, also owe us an explanation: not just for their explosive statements….but for their investigatory decisions from the start. That includes relying on the Steele dossier to seek a surveillance warrant against Trump’s former campaign adviser Carter Page, and to open a counterintelligence investigation on Trump himself, motivated in part by disagreement with his public embrace of Russia [emphasis added].
Appearing on Democracy Now (Mar.
25, 2019), Greenwald denounced the Trump-Russia story as a “complete and
total fraud and scam…” and accused the CIA, NSA and FBI of “lying” to the US
public by “engineering and manipulating” media leaks about Trump’s alleged
Russia ties. In his wrap-up, excerpted
from his book Hate Inc, Taibbi likened Russia-gate to the WMD myths
eagerly and uncritically taken up by the media in 2002-2003 that precipitated
the US-led invasion of Iraq:
The Steele report occupies the same role in #Russiagate the tales spun by Ahmed Chalabi occupied in the WMD screwup. Once again, a narrative became turbo-charged when Officials With Motives pulled the press corps by its nose to a swamp of unconfirmable private assertions.
A triumphant Tracey
also pounced, accusing Democrats caught up in the “conspiratorial frenzy” of
the “groundless Russia fever dream” of having “insulated Trump from legitimate
criticism…” Not only were “Trump’s very real crimes and corruptions” apparently
ignored, but the Democrats had ceded to Trump the authority to attack the “Deep
State”, which had been acting “unilaterally to thwart him, on grounds now
resolutely proven by Mueller to have been extraordinarily flimsy” (Fortune, Mar. 28, 2019).
reports denying or refuting charges that members of the ruling classes
have engaged in a criminal conspiracy, have long been treated with intense skepticism,
if not outright derision, by conspiracists. There are literally
hundreds of books rejecting the findings of the Warren
Commission Report that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who
assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Opposed to the Warren Commission are a
plethora of theories implicating the CIA, the Mafia, the “military-industrial
complex”, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Mossad, and a host of other sinister
combinations and cabals in JFK’s murder. Similarly there are countless books,
blogs and other media devoted to: disputing
Commission’s contention that al Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks;
the Hutton Inquiry’s
findings that former UK Ministry of Defence weapons inspector David Kelly
committed suicide; rejecting
the conclusions of the Operation
Paget inquest that refuted allegations that Princess Diana had been
of President Obama’s birth
certificate; going beyond the inconclusive findings of the House
of Representatives Select Committee report into the Benghazi affair, to accuse
Obama and Hillary Clinton of being behind the “deepest,
darkest, dirtiest political scandal of recent American history”; and most
the findings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)
the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against rebels in the city of
Douma in 2018, accusing OPCW officials of “tampering
with evidence” on behalf of an “oligarchic
In light of
this record of rejected official reports, the sudden embrace of Mueller’s
findings could be seen as a unique moment in conspiratorial lore: perhaps for
the first time ever, conspiracists could support an official report into
allegations of illegal and corrupt activity by the holder of the highest
political office in the land that exonerated its powerful subject. This
was all the more remarkable given that many of these same theorists had repeatedly
attacked Mueller and his investigation as agents of a “Deep State” plot. Indeed,
some of them had accused the “Deep State” of conspiring to cover-up acts of
corruption and murder by Obama and the Clintons; or even, more modestly, had
claimed that Hillary Clinton had escaped indictment over the email affair
because the FBI had deemed her “too important to be treated the
same as everyone else under the law” (The
Intercept, Jul. 06, 2016).
But this eager
embrace of Attorney-General Barr’s carefully crafted summation of Mueller’s
report exonerating President Trump was very much in line with the core traits
of conspiracy theories, particularly their attitude towards evidence. Some academic
observers argue that conspiracy theorists have a “double standard in evidence
evaluation”, where any information that supports a particular conspiracy theory
is “readily accepted; [but] denials from official sources are subject to
endless scrutiny.”7 A
harsher evaluation of this trait is described
by Lee McIntyre from Boston University, in the case of “science deniers”
(i.e. “climate deniers, anti-vaxxers”), who generally employ:
the ridiculous (double) standard of evidence…whereby no evidence is good enough to convince them of something they don’t want to believe, yet no evidence is required to get them to accept something they do want to believe [emphasis in original]
As its headline
finding confirmed their preconceived notions, most “Deep State Coup” theorists were
bound to not only endorse Barr’s brief letter, but defend it against critics
who accused him of whitewashing Mueller’s report. This line would be maintained
in the face of evidence that Barr’s letter had not only failed to accurately
reflect Mueller’s conclusions, but that Mueller and his team objected to Barr’s
version of their report.
Almost from the
moment it was released numerous mainstream media commentators were suspicious
that Barr’s brief letter was attempting to spin Mueller’s findings in Trump’s
favour. Of note was that it quoted just a handful of sentence fragments from
Mueller’s report. Jed Shugerman, writing in Slate (Mar.
24, 2019) for example, observed that instead of sharing the principal
conclusions of the Mueller Report verbatim,
Barr distributed parts of four of Mueller’s sentences throughout his letter—three of which offer any kind of conclusions, and none of which even appear to be complete sentences from Mueller’s text. Those sentences are obviously helpful for Trump legally and politically, but Barr’s short letter—one page on Russia, one page on obstruction—raises more questions than it even tries to answer.
“This is four
pages and there’s not a single full sentence in here that’s quoted the Mueller
NBC’s Ari Melber, “Every quote from the Mueller report itself is a partial
sentence.” CNN political analyst Zachary B. Wolf found that:
Mueller invested two years and employed scores of attorneys and investigators, and as of now, the public has seen 74 words from his full report. That jumps to 89 if you include the single footnote in Barr’s summary and 101 if you count the title (CNN, Mar. 29 2019).
authored article at Lawfare (Mar. 24, 2019)
also took issue with the lack of detail:
What makes the document more complicated still is the fact that it offers only a skeletal description of Mueller’s report. It only purports to convey Mueller’s top-line findings and does not include any of the evidence or legal analysis that underlies those findings. It doesn’t tell any of the stories that the Mueller report will tell. It only distills and announces two high-altitude legal conclusions from those stories [emphasis added].
letter may have been misleading both because of its sparse references to
Mueller’s report and Barr’s previous form as a “cover-up” specialist;8
was disputed by a number of Russiagate skeptics who insisted that had his
letter misrepresented Mueller’s report, it was inconceivable that either Mueller
or members of his team would not complain. Glenn Greenwald, seemingly
intent on painting Russiagaters as being in deep denial about Mueller’s
findings, was one of the most prominent proponents of this view. In a series
of incendiary tweets (Figure 3), Greenwald repeatedly mocked the
notion that Barr was “radically misrepresenting the true findings of the
Mueller report & Mueller and his team of high-powered lawyers are just
sitting silently by while he does it.”
Challenged by a
insisted this was not based on any belief in Barr’s integrity, but because
“Bob Mueller & his team of 19 aggressive prosecutors would not sit silently
by as Barr lies about the 22 months of work they did.” This argument was taken
up by others. Caitlin Johnstone, for example, wrote on March
Some insist that Attorney General William Barr is holding back key elements of the Mueller report, a claim which is premised on the absurd belief that Mueller would allow Barr to lie about the results of the investigation without speaking up publicly.
And again on March
30, this time directly recycling one of Greenwald’s tweets:
As other analysts have noted repeatedly, the belief that the full Mueller report contains shocking and incriminating evidence of Russian collusion is premised on the idea that Robert Mueller, the paragon of virtue and integrity according to these same people, is simply sitting on the sidelines allowing William Barr to lie about his investigation uncorrected. Mueller… has not stepped forward to say that Barr has lied about his entire two-year investigation as they are claiming. There has not been so much as a single anonymous leak from anyone on his team to the Washington Post contradicting anything Barr’s said.
Greenwald’s fellow-travellers, Aaron Maté, also contributed to this narrative:
Prominent Russiagate peddlers are refusing to accept that their conspiracy theory has collapsed. Their new one is that Barr is hiding the truth. This self-denial is what got us Trump & Russiagate in the 1st place: elites prioritizing their own privilege rather than face reality (Twitter, Apr. 01, 2019; emphasis added).
of this position was soon tested when media reporting emerged that members of Mueller’s
team believed that Barr’s letter had not accurately represented their findings.
For example, the New York Times (Apr.
03, 2019) reported that:
Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations [emphasis added]
For the benefit
of Johnstone, even the Washington Post (Apr.
04, 2019) had a report citing “people familiar with the matter” who were presumably
in contact with members of Mueller’s team, who questioned the accuracy of
Barr told lawmakers that he concluded the evidence was not sufficient to prove that the president obstructed justice.
But members of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant.
“It was much more acute than Barr suggested,” said one person, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity [emphasis added].
NBC News (Apr.
04, 2019) also reported:
Some members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team have expressed frustration that Attorney General William Barr cleared President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice, and they believe the evidence that Trump sought to impede the investigation is stronger than Barr suggested in his March letter summarizing Mueller’s findings, a U.S. official who has spoken with the members tells NBC News [emphasis added].
Greenwald, though, dismissed the reported leaks (Figure 4), even though they clearly refuted his contention that the Mueller team’s silence had affirmed the accuracy of Barr’s letter. Instead of Mueller’s “aggressive prosecutors”, Greenwald emphasised that these “anonymous complaints” only focused on the obstruction issue, something the “zombie”-like “Trump/Russia conspiracists” failed to grasp. He also described as “sad” how the “Trump/Russia conspiracy dead enders” were falsely claiming the reports were referring to Barr withholding “incriminating evidence about the conspiracy.”
A further test
emerged when the redacted version of the Mueller Report was finally released on
April 18, 2019 providing various analysts an opportunity to compare the
narrative contained in Barr’s letter with the actual report. Comparative
analysis of the two documents quickly highlighted the deliberate omissions and
deceptions of the first document. Charlie Savage, writing in the New York
Times (Apr. 20, 2019), for example, compared Barr’s excerpts to the actual
report and found in each case the Attorney-General’s careful cherry-picking had
distorted the report’s findings. According to Savage:
- Barr took Mueller’s words out of context to
suggest that Trump had no motive to obstruct justice, when Mueller had proposed
a number of motives.
- Barr omitted words suggesting there was
complicit conduct that fell short of “coordination” between the Trump campaign
and the Russian Government.
- Barr truncated Mueller’s explanation of what
“coordination” meant and did not mean.
- Barr omitted the reason why Mueller
highlighted the thoroughness of his investigation – to leave open the
possibility that after Trump left office other prosecutors could examine the
evidence for potential indictment.
Based on this
or their own assessment, numerous other commentators concluded that Barr’s
letter had “failed to give the full, nuanced picture of the report’s analysis” (Molly
in fact he had clearly “twisted Mueller’s words” (Marshall Cohen, CNN);
delivering an account “full of half-truths and highly misleading statements”,
argued former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti (Politico,
Apr. 19, 2019). According to Salvador Rizzo in the Washington Post (Apr.
19, 2019) “in some cases, Barr’s characterizations were incomplete or
misleading. The Mueller report is more damning of Trump than the attorney
general indicated.” Steve Denning in Forbes (Apr.
19 2019) argued it was now “apparent that Attorney General Barr has been
misleading the American people about [Mueller’s] findings…Some are omissions.
Some are evasions or distortions. Some appear to be deliberate untruths.”
“Barr’s selective, partial quotations from the Mueller text amounted to brazen,
dishonest sins of omission”, wrote Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone (Apr.
unmoved by these assessments and ignoring the extensive media reporting that
now contradicted his claims Greenwald continued to defend Barr’s letter. For
example, in an interview with Michael Tracey on April
25, Greenwald twice made the risible claim that the lack of pushback from
Mueller staffers was proof that Barr had been accurate:
The reason that I believe that the letter, more or less accurately summarized the findings of the Mueller report was twofold. One, obviously there was Bob Mueller sitting there having just spent 22 months of his life devoted to an investigation, and then he wrote a 420 page report. He wasn’t going to let somebody radically lie about what it was that he did or didn’t find [emphasis added].
But the reason it was rational to assume that William Barr was accurately summarizing the findings, was because you had Robert Mueller…and a whole team of people who knew what the report said [who] weren’t going to let them lie [emphasis added].
There was a similar,
if more heated reaction from the “Deep State coup” truthers to the leaking of
Mueller’s March 27 letter to Barr (Figure 5) complaining that the
Attorney-General’s letter of March 24 “did not fully capture the context,
nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions” resulting in
“public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation” (Washington
Post, Apr 30, 2019).
of Russia-gate skeptics, Trump supporters and surrogates, portrayed Mueller’s
letter as an insignificant, desperate attempt at attention-seeking in a bid to
distract from the facts of Trump’s exoneration. For example, in a series of
tweets Aaron Maté dismissed Mueller’s disagreement with Barr as “trivial”;
it was “a
simple dispute: Mueller wanted his summaries released, Barr didn’t.” In a May 10 tweet,
Maté lambasted “Russiagate peddlers” for supposedly claiming “Barr
misrepresented Mueller’s report – even though Mueller’s letter never claimed
The National Review’s Andrew McCarthy also
argued that “Mueller is precisely not saying that Barr misrepresented his
key findings.” The real issue was that Mueller and the “Clinton/Obama minions
he recruited to staff the case wrote the report with a certain mood music in
mind”, but they had been outplayed by Barr who “gave us just the no-crime
pro-Trump commentators, made similar arguments that Mueller was upset because
Barr had torpedoed his communications strategy. “Barr’s letter was accurate”, wrote Ben
Shapiro, but Mueller “was pissed because the summary didn’t include the
generalized mood of the report.” According to Judicial
Watch’s Tom Fitton, Mueller’s letter was evidence of his frustration that
his “smear operation wasn’t going as planned.” This confirmed that Mueller’s
investigation was an “abuse of power targeting [Trump].” Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative
provocateur and beneficiary of a Trump pardon, dismissed
Mueller’s letter as “silly” as it “basically frets that his rhetorical mood
music was ignored.”
conceded that the intent of Barr’s letter was to shape public perceptions of
the Mueller Report in Trump’s favour, ahead of its release. And in the view of
some commentators it had worked exactly as intended. David Graham, writing in The
01, 2019), for example, argued that Barr’s letter had “managed to mislead
the public and Congress, spinning Mueller’s findings in a way that hobbled
their impact and protected the president.” The claim of exoneration in Barr’s
letter had dominated media reporting in the weeks before the report was finally
released, benefitting Trump:
As a way of defusing the findings of the investigation, it was tremendously successful. Even though the report can read as an impeachment referral to Congress, by the time its full text was released, the ardor for impeachment hearings among legislators and the public had faded.
was only when the Mueller Report was finally released that the triumphant “Deep
State coup” proponents would change course and effectively repudiate the “Trump
exonerated” message of Barr’s missive by disputing Mueller’s findings. There
were already portents of this forthcoming wave of denial within Barr’s summary.
1 The extensive and regular personal contacts between Trump and
Hannity have been noted by multiple sources. For example, according to
journalist Michael Wolff, Trump and Hannity “spoke as often as six or seven
times a day” (Siege, p.148); and Olivia Nuzzi reported in New York
14, 2018) that Hannity usually called Trump late almost every evening, but
“[o]n some days, they speak multiple times with one calling the other to inform
him of the latest developments.” Such reporting was largely confirmed in the
book Team of Vipers (2019) by former White House communications aide
Cliff Sims who observed that: “Hannity…was one of the few people outside the
White House who spoke to the President as much as the media seemed to think he
did. Most people inflated their access to Trump; Hannity didn’t have to…[T]he
two discussed everything from personnel matters to communication strategy”
(p.271). Hannity and Trump were also both clients of the now imprisoned lawyer,
Michael Cohen. Not surprisingly, Hannity’s name has also turned up repeatedly
in documents associated with both Mueller’s investigation revealing his role as
a backchannel between Trump and Paul Manafort while the latter was being
News, Jan. 15, 2020); and the current Ukraine affair, mainly in the
documents released by one of the alleged conspirators Lev Parnas (Alternet,
Jan. 17, 2020).
2 There are numerous examples, such as a 1920s academic article that
described as a “conspiracy theory”, the apparent “belief of the abolitionists
being that the Know Nothing movement was created by southern slave holders…” (Indiana
Magazine of History, March 1922, p.66). In the 1950s famed American
sociologist Daniel Bell used the term to disparage C. Wright Mills book The
Power Elite (1956). According to Bell: “Although Mills contends that he
does not believe in conspiracy theory, his loose account of the centralization
of power comes suspiciously close to it” (American Journal of Sociology,
November 1958, p.241).
3 The article in question, however, went on to describe the findings
of a recent study that suggested the term “conspiracy theory” had lost some of
its negative connotations. The author of the study cited speculated that the
term had acquired some legitimacy due to romanticized portrayals in popular
media and also the general conflation of conspiracies with “corruption and
political intrigue” (Pacific
Standard, May 3, 2017).
4 Chait’s descent into the more extreme Russiagate theorising
occurred in his lengthy New York Magazine (Jul.
09, 2018) piece. After describing how Trump’s visit to the Soviet Union in
1987 preceded an early public attack from the then property developer on US
military support for its allies, Chait floated the highly unlikely idea there
was a “small but real chance—10 percent? 20 percent?—that [Trump] has been
covertly influenced or personally compromised by a hostile foreign power for
5 By his own account, Conrad Black attended his first Bilderberg
meeting in 1981 and in 1986 went on to become the co-leader of the Canadian
Bilderberg group (Black, A Life in Progress, pp.262, 263). Bilderberg
Meeting Reports and other public releases identify Black as a Bilderberg
Steering Committee member from 1986 through to his last meeting in 2003. In his
first memoir, Black spoke highly of Bilderberg’s “animated social sessions” and
how it gave him “a powerful and entirely agreeable sense of community with some
very talented and prominent people” (ibid, p.263). Writing in the Canadian National
Post (Jun. 10, 2006), after boasting about having invited no less than five
Canadian prime ministers to Bilderberg, Black had some condescending words for
“conspiracy theorists” about both Bilderberg and Davos: “…there is no
conspiracy. These are convivial sessions… None of these gatherings commands,
dispenses, or believes in any loyalty of its own…[T]hey don’t change the world
at all.” This missive came after Black had been asked in 2004 to discontinue
his association with Bilderberg because of the charges pending against him. In
his second memoir, reflecting on his expulsion from Bilderberg, Black claims to
have become “tired of Bilderberg”, in particular its “Euro-federalists”,
“patronizing tribalism” and “group think” (Black, A Matter of Principle,
6 Consistency on this particular matter, however, has not been
Greenwald’s strong point. In 2016 he was castigating the Establishment for
hypocritically disowning Trump over his support for torture and a belligerent
foreign policy. Greenwald suggested the public outrage of the elites was
largely confected as Trump was “merely a natural extension of
the mainstream rhetorical and policy framework that has been laid, not some
radical departure from it.” In addition, Greenwald claimed that Trump had been
“fully integrated within and embraced by America’s circles of power and
celebrity, including by those who now want to pretend to find him so hideously
offensive” (The Intercept, Mar. 06, 2016). Yet
at the same time Greenwald was also clearly arguing that Trump was deviating
from that “mainstream”. For example, in an article devoted to attacking Hilary
Clinton at length for embracing an “extremist” pro-Israel agenda, he briefly
noted that in contrast Trump had “vowed ‘neutrality’ on Israel/Palestine” (Intercept,
Feb. 18, 2016). Responding to another Intercept journalist,
Greenwald explained Trump’s supposedly neutral stance on Israel as being due to
his “non-interventionist mindset” (Mar. 11, 2016).
In a subsequent interview with Slate (Jul.
28, 2016), Greenwald attributed to Trump a “coherent philosophy that is
noninterventionist, isolationist and ubernationalistic.”
Trump’s first year, however, Greenwald had attempted to walk this back, arguing
that Trump’s “non-interventionism” should not be equated with “pacificism”. He
even admonished a number of unnamed commentators who had apparently confused
these terms, accusing them of having “ignorantly claim[ed] that Trump’s
escalatory war on terror bombing is in conflict with his advocacy of
non-interventionism.” Greenwald then redefined Trump’s foreign policy as:
“Fight fewer wars and for narrower reasons, but be more barbaric and criminal
in prosecuting the ones that are fought” (The
Intercept, Mar. 27, 2017).
A few months later Greenwald offered yet another
formulation to explain the conspiratorial hostility of the “permanent national
security structure in Washington” towards Trump, manifest in “anti-Trump leaks”
from “anonymous CIA and other Deep State operatives…” The denizens of the Deep
State had objected to a wider range of real and imagined faults in Trump; not
just his supposed “non-interventionist” stance or, oddly enough, his desire for
better relations with Moscow along the same lines as Obama had sought (Greenwald
offered no explanation as to why Obama was not targeted for the same treatment
for his Russia stance, unless that was the underlying intent of the GOP-driven
Benghazi investigations). Instead, they were targeting Trump because of “his
campaign positions, his outsider status, his unstable personality, his witting
and unwitting unmasking of the truth of U.S. hegemony, the embarrassment he
causes in Western capitals, his reckless unpredictability — Trump posed a
threat to their power centers” (The Intercept,
Aug. 06, 2017).
approach, inaccurately positing Trump as a full outlier, also incorrectly portrays
the US national security establishment as monolithic and committed to the
neo-conservative agenda, when it was just one faction that was briefly
ascendant under Bush and Cheney. But the notion that Trump was in any way a
serious “non-interventionist”, defies logic and is at odds with Trump’s
obviously militarist foreign policy, one that has proven to be an obvious boon
for the military industrial complex, as other commentators such as Sheldon
Richman and Daniel
Larison have cogently argued. In any case, it is more likely that Trump’s
numerous and significant behavioural and intellectual shortcomings (detailed in
numerous books and media accounts), rather than his crude militarism, have
aroused the ire and disdain of the US national security establishment.
7 These observations were made by Robert Strong in his review of
Barbara Honneger’s book October Surprise (1989), in which he criticises Honneger
for making her case “in a fashion that permits her book to be dismissed as the
work of a common conspiracy theorist gone off the deep end of history.” Robert
Strong “October Surprises”, Intelligence & National Security, April
1993, pp.229 & 230.
8 For a more detailed analysis of Barr’s “cover-up” record see Thom
Hartmann, “Has ‘Cover-Up General’ William Barr Struck Again?”, Common
Dreams, Mar. 26, 2019; Greg Walters, “William Barr’s been accused of a
presidential cover-up before”, Vice
News, Apr. 18, 2019; and Ryan Cooper, “Attorney General Barr has always
been a cover up specialist”, The
Week, May 03, 2019.
9 In other social media postings Maté insisted that he was championing
“basic logic, which tells us that Barr somehow misrepresenting Mueller on
collusion is a conspiracy theory to cover up for Mueller’s rejection of your
Russia one” (Apr. 14, 2019). He made a
similar declaration on the eve of the release of the Mueller Report: “This
isn’t about trusting Barr. It’s about trusting logic. Do you think Mueller
would stay silent if Barr misrepresented him? And could Barr get away w/
flagrantly lying about a report we’re about to see for ourselves in a few hours?
Faith in Russiagate requires faulty thinking” (Apr. 19, 2019; emphasis
added). Again, as with Greenwald, this position was only sustained by ignoring
or downplaying reports of disquiet from Mueller and his team about the content
of Barr’s letter.