Post media critic Erik Wemple says stoking old scandals is an attempt by President Trump's media allies to sow doubt in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

For the better part of a week, the Fox News program “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has been doing business as “The Tony Podesta Gazette.” The trend started with welcome news in Carlsonville: On Oct. 23, news reports indicated that eminent lobbyist Tony Podesta, of the Democratic-connected lobbying outfit Podesta Group, was a “subject” of the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is looking into allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.

As detailed in the NBC News report, the Podesta link came via Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign executive whose indictment was revealed Monday for various charges, including conspiracy to launder money and making false statements related to his work for interests in Ukraine. Manafort was working the PR beat for a nonprofit called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, which Carlson called a “sham.” The Podesta Group performed some work as part of this effort.

In the best tradition of a cable-news opinionator, Carlson slipped his programming mitts around the Podesta-Manafort-Ukraine connection and squeezed until multiple segments trickled out. On Oct. 23, he riffed, “Robert Mueller’s team of investigators apparently has found evidence of suspected wrongdoing by the Podesta Group, which you will remember is a lobbying firm founded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta and his brother Tony. According to news accounts, the Podestas may have violated criminal law by failing to register as lobbyists for foreign powers.”

The next night, Carlson claimed to have his own little break in the story, thanks to a “source” who’d formerly worked at the Podesta Group. “According to our source … Manafort is indeed at the center of this investigation, but not because of his ties to Trump. In fact, Paul Manafort spent years working with the Podesta Group on behalf of Russian government interests.” The “source” also claimed that Manafort could be seen in the Podesta Group offices at least once a month.

More: “Now, why did the Russians choose the Podesta Group? Well, because both Podestas were close to the Clintons and Hillary was then secretary of state. She could get things done for the Podestas’ Russian clients. It was influence peddling, the most obvious kind,” said Carlson. Such content bumped along through the end of the week.

By Monday, Tony Podesta and his legal representation had reached their limit. Geoffrey R. Garinther of the law firm Venable LLP tapped out a letter to Carlson steeped in the buzzwords of civil action: “I write to demand that you and Fox News Channel immediately cease and desist disseminating false and misleading reports about Mr. Podesta and the Podesta Group,” wrote Garinther. “In particular, your statements about Mr. Podesta and Podesta Group made during Tucker Carlson Tonight on October 24 and 25, 2017 are provably false and misleading and are defamatory.”

Three of Carlson’s claims, in particular, set off Podesta, as outlined in the lawyer’s letter: “Your report propagated falsehoods, such as: (1) Mr. Manafort was seen in the Podesta Group’s offices ‘once a month’ (2) Mr. Manafort and the Podesta Group worked for the Russian Government through Podesta Group’s representation of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECFMU), and (3) the Podesta Group’s client, the ECFMU, was a ‘sham’ organization. Your statements are fabricated and demonstrate a callous disregard for the truth.”

On his Monday night show, Carlson disclosed the threat letter from Podesta Inc., taking particular delight in its final line: “Any publication, dissemination or broadcast of any portion of this letter will constitute a breach of confidence and a violation of Copyright Act. You are not authorized to publish this letter in whole or in part absent our express written authorization,” reads the letter. Of course, Carlson referenced and quoted the correspondence with no hesitation whatsoever.

Which is the right approach. Remember, journalists: If the material is newsworthy, true and obtained legally, it’s generally fair game.

To further fact-check Carlson’s claims, Garinther wrote that Manafort, in fact, did not work with the Podesta Group “in its representation of the ECFMU. Further, Mr. Manafort did not regularly attend meetings at the Podesta Group.”

There will be no litigation here over how often Manafort may or may not have presented his well-heeled soul at the Podesta Group offices. Whether he worked with the Podesta Group on this project, however, is a juicy target. The contention in the lawyer’s letter that the longtime Republican campaign aide somehow did not do such work runs into a concrete wall with extra rebar in the form of the Manafort indictment itself. Here’s the paragraph that addresses the working relationship (please note that “Company B” has been widely identified as the Podesta Group):

In fact, MANAFORT and GATES had: selected Company A and Company B; engaged in weekly scheduled calls and frequent emails with Company A and Company B to provide them directions as to specific lobbying steps that should be taken; sought and received detailed oral and written reports from these firms on the lobbying work they had performed; communicated with Yanukovych to brief him on their lobbying efforts; both congratulated and reprimanded Company A and Company B on their lobbying work; communicated directly with United States officials in connection with this work; and paid the lobbying firms over $2 million from offshore accounts they controlled, among other things. In addition, court-authorized searches of MANAFORT and GATES’ DMI email accounts and MANAFORT’S Virginia residence in July 2017 revealed numerous documents, including documents related to lobbying, which were more than thirty-days old at the time of the November 2016 letter to the Department of Justice.

Weeds-level lobbyist-client engagement, in other words. In his sendup of the lawyer letter, Carlson wondered aloud whether Podesta’s lawyer had even read the indictment before passing along his threats. Tony Podesta has stepped down as head of the firm to deal with questions surrounding the probe. The attention from Fox News and its ilk make it “impossible to run a public affairs shop,” Podesta told colleagues. (A spokesperson for Podesta issued a statement about lobbying registration, included in full at the bottom of this post.)

Glib as always, Carlson has tied Podesta’s work in this affair to “Russian government interests,” even though Manafort and his partner were working to promote a Ukrainian nonprofit. Whether that work constituted the bidding of the Kremlin is a complicated matter. As news reports have pointed out, Yanukovych famously shouted down apparatchiks who wanted Ukraine to establish cozier ties with the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin. Manafort himself preached the opposite approach — accession to the European Union, which was the “primary focus” of the ECFMU, according to a person familiar with the organization.

Writing in the Daily Beast in February 2014, Eli Lake wrote, “On paper, the Centre represented itself as a non-partisan research institution that pressed for Ukraine’s integration with the European Union. In reality, it was closely tied to the party of Viktor Yanukovych and one of his principal financial backers, Sergei Klyuyev.”

Such guidance went down the toilet: In December 2013, Yanukovych rejected the European Union in favor of a pro-Putin arrangement. Not long thereafter, Yanukovych left his post and fled to Russia.

To cut through all the minutiae, Carlson has plenty of ammunition to blast back at the lawyer’s letter. And it sure is fun television.

Yet even when Carlson is right, he’s wrong — and the present case is no exception. Slow down and appreciate just what he has accomplished in this whole expedition. Once a prominent Democratic name pops up in connection to the special counsel probe, Carlson falls in love with it, repeating it to the point that Podesta, at least to viewers of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” becomes a central player in the Mueller investigation. Along with the phantom story about Uranium One, it becomes part of the “real Russia story” that pervades Fox News programming.

Then Carlson lucks into the lawyer letter, which licenses him to rerun his reporting on Podesta. We counted more than 50 references to the Podesta family name on a Nexis transcript of Monday’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

With so much programming about Podesta, there’s far less room for other names in the probe, such as George Papadopoulos or Michael Flynn or even Manafort. Speaking of Manafort, observe how Carlson minimizes his role and aggrandizes Podesta’s over the course of just a few thoughts:

Media reports describe Paul Manafort as a central figure in the Russia investigation due to the several months he spent as Donald Trump’s campaign chairman. According to our source, that’s only half true. Manafort is indeed at the center of this investigation, but not because of his ties to Trump. In fact, Paul Manafort spent years working with the Podesta group on behalf of Russian government interests.

That relationship extends back to at least 2011 when our source claims Manafort had dinner in Washington with both Podestas, Tony and John. In the years following, our sources says, he saw Paul Manafort in the Podesta offices, quote, “all the time.” At least once a month. Manafort was not there to socialize, he was representing Russian business and political interests, who sought to influence Capitol Hill, Hillary Clinton State Department and the Obama administration.

Our source describes Manafort bringing what he called a parade of Russian oligarchs up to the Congress where they met with members and their staffs. But the central effort to extend Russian influence was focused on the executive branch, the Obama administration. The vehicle through which Paul Manafort worked for the Russians was a shell group called the European Center for a Modern Ukraine.

Now place that version of events alongside reality: Manafort started working for Yanukovych in the mid-2000s, endeavoring to revive the politician’s career after an unfortunate turn of events. Thanks to mentoring and modern political methods introduced by Manafort, Yanukovych bested rival Yulia Tymoshenko in a 2010 presidential runoff. And then? “Yanukovych moved quickly to consolidate all instruments of power: the courts, parliament, the prosecutor’s office, the media and TV. Tymoshenko was charged with corruption and jailed; Yankovych repeatedly shrugged off western calls for her release.”

It was Manafort, in other words, who helped the autocrat gain power; it was Manafort who secured work with the ECFMU; it was Manafort who, along with his partner Rick Gates, partnered with the Podesta Group. And: It was Manafort who became Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, and later got slapped with a thoroughgoing federal indictment.

Podesta, meanwhile, is contending with some questions about his registrations.

Nor is the Manafort-Trump connection an idle one. Scroll back to the summer of 2016, when relations with Russia were at the center of the presidential campaign. The Guardian put things nicely: “Manafort’s candidate has expressed admiration for Putin, encouraged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, and appeared unaware that Russian troops had seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.” But Podesta!

A Fox News representative says it will respond to the lawyer’s letter in due course.

Statement from a Podesta spokesperson:

“Mr. Podesta and the Podesta Group complied with FARA when the Podesta Group publicly disclosed the firm’s representation of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECFMU) over five years ago, in 2012, under section 613(h) of the law. The Podesta Group publically disclosed this representation shortly after we were engaged, after receiving the advice of a well-recognized legal expert in this field and in-house counsel, and based upon the formal written certification that the client was neither funded nor directed by a foreign government or a political party. Two and a half years after the engagement ended, the Podesta Group read in media reports that the representations made to us by the ECFMU were apparently not accurate. Immediately, the Podesta Group voluntarily contacted the FARA office to determine if an additional FARA filing was required. When the FARA office advised that we should re-file, we did so promptly. Indeed, after we submitted our disclosure, the FARA office at DOJ informed the Podesta Group that it was not the subject nor a target of an investigation.”