When an eight-year-old on the playground responds to an accusation with “I know you are but what am I?”, even the other children know how lame a retort it is. But when the Republican Party says the same thing, it’s much more than a desperate attempt to flummox their opponents and confuse any onlookers.
It’s a careful, coordinated, and comprehensive strategy.
That’s what Republicans are doing right now with regard to the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election, which it is more than clear was 1) comprehensive, involving hacking, propaganda, and outreach to Trump representatives; and 2) clearly intended to help Donald Trump win the election, or at the very least wound Hillary Clinton should she become president.
What’s happening now is an audacious effort on the part of Republicans to convince everyone that not only did Trump and his campaign not work with Russia, in fact it was Hillary Clinton who did so, and Vladimir Putin (whose hatred of Clinton burns with the fire of a thousand suns) actually wanted her to win and tried to help her.
If you’ve been conscious for the last year and a half, that surely strikes you as deranged, something no one could be dumb enough to believe. But Republicans have run this play many times before, and by the time they’re done, half the public will believe it.
It has three essential components. The first is the cranking up of the conservative calliope: all of the right’s information sources, from Fox News to conservative talk radio to web sites like Breitbart and Drudge, immediately begin shouting about the same story and repeating the same line. Then to keep it going and force mainstream media to cover it, they create an official “investigation” that will provide a steady stream of tantalizing leaks and events that can become the occasion of news coverage, even if it all ends up proving nothing. Then the whole narrative gets validated by top-level Republicans whose words are news in and of themselves.
All of these components are now in motion. Fox and the other outlets are doing hour after hour of discussion about what they are calling the “Russia dossier,” an opposition research document prepared for Democrats that gathered together facts and rumors about Trump’s dealings in Russia (I explained why their line on this document is so bogus here). Now that story is being joined to absurd charges about the sale of a uranium mining company, with all kinds of dark allegations of corruption.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee explained the uranium story in this fact check, in which Trump’s claims — which were essentially the same as what he and other Republicans are making now — were awarded the maximum Four Pinocchios because they were so dishonest. But I’ll run it down very briefly:
- A man named Frank Giustra, who donated significant sums to the Clinton Foundation, sold his mining company to a Canadian firm called Uranium One in 2007. Keep that date in mind.
- In 2009, the Russian company Rosatom bought a stake in Uranium One; in 2010 they acquired a majority stake. However, under American law, none of the uranium they mine in the U.S. can be exported without government approval, to Russia or anywhere else.
- Since that ownership gave Rosatom control of 20 percent of uranium mining in the United States, their purchase had to be approved by the U.S. government. That approval is done by a committee that includes representatives from nine separate agencies, one of which is the State Department. The sale was ultimately approved. There is no evidence that Clinton had any involvement in that decision (the State Department official who served on the committee has said she didn’t), let alone that she engineered it on behalf of a foundation donor who would not gain anything from it in any case.
This question became a topic of public debate with the 2016 release of “Clinton Cash,” a book that made all kinds of sketchy allegations about supposed corruption and was written under the auspices of an organization controlled by Steve Bannon. Yes, that Steve Bannon.
During the campaign, Trump would say things like “Remember that Hillary Clinton gave Russia 20 percent of American uranium and, you know, she was paid a fortune,” which was a lie. First of all, Giustra donated to the Clinton Foundation, which would use the money for things like AIDS relief; none of it went to Hillary Clinton. Second, by the time the American government — remember, nine separate agencies were involved — approved the sale of Uranium One, it had been years since Giustra sold his company to Uranium One.
Why are we talking about this in 2017? Because of that comprehensive GOP strategy of misdirection and confusion. This week Republicans in Congress announced that they are starting an investigation into the approval of the uranium deal — a matter that it’s safe to say they care as much about as they cared about consular security or proper email management. Turn on Fox News or tune in to Rush Limbaugh today and you’ll probably hear all about it. President Trump is weighing in as well.
“The uranium sale to Russia, and the way it was done, so underhanded, with tremendous amounts of money being passed, I actually think that’s Watergate, modern age,” he said the other day. Fox runs segments asking questions like “What charges could Hillary Clinton face if this does develop?”
And this morning, President Trump tweeted this:
We should acknowledge that though it is anything but “commonly agreed,” it’s entirely possible that all of Russia’s efforts to manipulate the 2016 election happened without any direct cooperation with Trump or his campaign. While they were without question the beneficiaries of Russian meddling, we don’t yet have proof that they were working directly with the Russians.
Perhaps when Special Counsel Robert Mueller concludes his investigation, he’ll find that neither Trump himself nor anyone working for him did anything wrong. Perhaps that Trump Tower meeting with Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner was completely innocent, and all those meetings with Russians that Trump officials lied about were innocent, and there’s nothing to Trump’s decades of involvement with Russian gangsters and oligarchs. Perhaps.
But Republicans aren’t content to wait for that investigation to conclude. They’re going on the offensive to convince people that it’s Hillary Clinton who colluded with Russia.
Is it ludicrous? Absolutely. But they have powerful tools at their disposal to push their story out, and they’re going to use every one.