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It is easy to forget that until about 18 months ago, Russia’s interference in US politics was on the front pages almost every day. One stillborn Robert Mueller report and a failed Ukraine-related impeachment later and we barely think about Russia at all. That is a pity because in the final three weeks of the 2020 election, something comparable is taking place under our noses.
I don’t think Russia’s ill-concealed intrusions on the November 3 voting process will make a big difference to the outcome this time. Unlike in 2016, the gap between Donald Trump and the Democratic frontrunner is too wide today for such story-planting to make a difference. But there is stuff happening with Russia’s fingerprints all over it.
Last week Ron Johnson, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, who is also chairman of the Senate committee on homeland affairs, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Hillary Clinton in 2016 asked Barack Obama’s administration to “stir up a scandal” linking the Trump campaign to Russia. Johnson’s committee is still investigating the “Obamagate” scandal, in which the then-president allegedly plotted with Mrs Clinton and to create a fake US intelligence investigation into Trump-Russia ties. Johnson’s source for this is John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, who last week declassified heavily redacted analysis by CIA Russia analysts from the time that said there might be a connection.
It turns out that their likely source for this — and therefore Ratcliffe’s and Johnson’s — was misinformation from Russia itself. This is about as circular as it gets. The Russians plant disinformation about themselves that the head of US intelligence then uses to discredit the idea that the Russians plant disinformation. If you want a good precis read an opinion article by Michael Morell, a former deputy head of the CIA, and Mike Vickers, a former under-secretary of defence for intelligence, in The Washington Post. They describe Ratcliffe as being “up to no good — undertaking the most blatant and egregious politicisation of intelligence that we, two career intelligence officers, have ever seen”.
Then there is this week’s notorious New York Post story alleging that Hunter Biden had persuaded his father Joe Biden, then US vice-president, to push for the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor to stop an investigation of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter served. Like any good disinformation, this story included plenty that is true. Hunter undoubtedly monetised his father’s name and led a dissolute lifestyle. But the core allegation — which comes, unsurprisingly, from former New York mayor and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has been a reliable pipeline for such journalism since Trump entered politics — is nonsense.
Biden’s push for Ukraine to fire its chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was seen as corrupt, was part of a broader international effort that included the EU. The push to fire Shokin did not originate with Biden but was an IMF condition for releasing its next tranche of money to Ukraine.
The timing of this latest story, which comes from an unidentified computer repair store owner in Delaware who passed on the laptop’s hard drive to Giuliani, is, of course, optimal. My best guess is that its ultimate source is located somewhere to the east of Poland. I have not linked to the story — Swampians can use Google if they want to read it directly — since it is disinformation. Twitter, to its credit, has banned links to the story on its platform.
The FBI has repeatedly warned that Russia is actively interfering in the 2020 election. Nobody has yet managed to find out to whom Trump owes the $421m in personally guaranteed loans that are coming due in the next four years. We can only guess at that. It is a fair bet that at least a third of Swamp Notes readers will have discarded this email when they saw it was about Russia. I do not blame you. Repetition is numbing and the Russia story has been nothing if not endless.
This week I received a new book by David Rothkopf, former editor of Foreign Policy, and host of the Deep State Radio podcasts on which I appear from time to time. It is on the same subject. The title, Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump, leaves little doubt as to where Rothkopf stands. Then I started reading it. I had forgotten how much I had forgotten.
Had Mueller not bottled his conclusions, his report would have led to several Trump impeachments. In fewer than half the pages it took Mueller to run himself into the sand, Rothkopf does a brilliant job of defining precisely how Trump has been aiding and abetting the enemy. He also gives a limpidly concise potted history — from Arnold to Aaron Burr and James Buchanan — of the history of American treason.
“It is my conviction that, upon reviewing the facts, the only objective conclusion that can be drawn is that wittingly or otherwise Donald Trump, those closest to him in his White House, his campaign and his family, and the leaders of the Republican party in the United States have committed the highest-level, greatest, most damaging betrayal in the history of the country. They are traitors. And as of this writing they continue to damage the United States as no other actors in the world can.”
I will leave Swampians to make up their own minds. Even if you strenuously disagree, or would prefer to forget, Rothkopf’s history is compelling. In the meantime, let me leave you with Alexander Hamilton’s quote about what happens when a man “unprincipled in his private life and desperate in his fortune” holds executive power. It still serves as one of the most timeless warnings against tyranny:
“The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion . . . ”
Rana, I presume you do not subscribe to the New York Post. But I imagine you’re also a fan of Hamilton (not just the musical). My question is whether we should pay heed to his warning in the coming weeks?
Join Peter Spiegel, Lauren Fedor and Michael Peterson from the Peter G Peterson Foundation for the next instalment of the FT’s New Economic Reality series. Register and tune in on October 26 at 12pm EST.
My column this week warns that even if Trump loses, Trumpism will still live on. I also wrote this weekend’s FT Magazine cover story on America’s slow burn constitutional crisis: will America tear itself apart?
Elsewhere, I strongly recommend Rush Doshi in Foreign Policy about how China believes Trump is accelerating America’s decline. Chinese leaders are split between wanting America to decline “in an elegant and decent way” under Biden, Doshi reports, or risk more “star performances” from Trump. It is a fascinating analysis which reveals split views in Beijing on whether Trump is causing America to nosedive too quickly for its tastes.
You should read that piece in conjunction with the FT’s series on the New Cold War between the US and China that includes excellent pieces from several of my colleagues.
Catch up on the latest US presidential race polling and the rest of our election coverage.
Rana Foroohar responds
Ed, I don’t subscribe to the NY Post, though I did once apply unsuccessfully for a job as a headline writer there (I’m far better at policy analysis than coming up with zingers such as “Headless Body in Topless Bar”, though I admire those who can).
But in terms of your Hamilton question, what strikes me is that “flattering the prejudices of the people and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions” reads like an official mission statement for Facebook and the other social media platforms on which nefarious actors, both foreign and domestic, spread much of their disinformation.
I’m ultimately less worried about Russian influence than Big Tech influence. Regulate them properly (meaning make them take full legal responsibility for disinformation just as traditional media does) and a good chunk of the problem would go away. Let’s hope Biden wins, and that he does.
Even if the election is contested, I’m feeling hopeful — a source today told me that Democrats have marshalled four times as many lawyers as Republicans in anticipation of any battle over the transition of power.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to: ‘Republicans are about to rediscover fiscal religion’:
“I don’t disagree about the problems brought by capitalism. But the real problem is that capitalism has been enormously successful in its core mission — increasing the power of capital . . . Successful systems don’t reform themselves. They persist until replaced. We need a new ‘ism’. Socialism, environmentalism, stakeholderism?” — Paul O’Brien, Wilson, Wyoming
“I fervently hope that your premise that Joe Biden will win is correct. But as a citizen of the EU, I would hope that just as Brexit has helped focus EU minds on strengthening the EU in economic, political and social terms, a Trump victory would be a further encouragement for the EU to invest more in becoming a credible participant in a global threesome of China, Europe and the US.” — Michael Clarke, East Flanders, Belgium