As that hypothetical suggests, this point of reference has bled into all sorts of other issues. The Russia investigation has long been shorthanded by President Trump as a witch hunt and a hoax. It now serves as a shorthand for “why should we listen to the media?”
That’s particularly true of Trump’s effort to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election using any scrambling tool within his reach. The Russia probes hang over Trump’s attempt to steal a second consecutive term in a variety of ways, from being used to criticize the media’s insistence that his claims of fraud are baseless — which they are — to suggesting that the effort is some sort of karmic response to a Democratic Party that applauded the investigation of Trump’s campaign after 2016.
One rhetorical point that has emerged — and on which so much of this hinges — is that the effort to gin up fraud claims is somehow more valid than the Russia investigation. It isn’t.
Despite the constant rhetoric from Fox News pundits and Trump’s social media warriors, the predication for the Russia investigation and possible links to Trump’s campaign was obvious. Federal intelligence agencies had detected efforts by Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, including hacking the Democratic Party and using social media to shift views of American politics. By October 2016, the government was publicly warning about Russia’s efforts, including probing local elections systems.
By then, the FBI was already investigating possible links between that effort and Trump’s campaign team. The investigation began in late July after WikiLeaks began releasing material stolen from the Democratic Party. Those releases prompted the Australian government to reveal a conversation one of its diplomats had with a Trump campaign adviser earlier in the year in which the adviser, George Papadopoulos, revealed that he had been told Russia had incriminating emails related to Hillary Clinton. Eventually, we would learn that his source for that information was an academic with ties to the Russian government.
Papadopoulos wasn’t the only one with demonstrated links to Russia. Another adviser, Carter Page, had previously been interviewed by the FBI after a Russian agent identified him as a possible recruitment target. Earlier in July, Page had traveled to Moscow. Another adviser, Michael Flynn, had traveled to Moscow in December 2015, dining with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Most evocatively, Trump’s campaign manager at the time was Paul Manafort, who had his own documented links to pro-Russian political groups through his work in Ukraine. Manafort was interviewed in early 2016, even before joining Trump’s campaign. Ultimately, we learned both through the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and from a report compiled by a bipartisan Senate committee that Manafort had passed campaign material to an old colleague of his who, the Senate determined, had links to Russian intelligence.
Those were the primary focal points of the investigation in its early stages. Eventually, questions about overlap between Russian actors and the Trump campaign would illustrate any number of other demonstrated and circumstantial ties: a meeting at Trump Tower involving Manafort, members of Trump’s family and people linked to Russia’s government; questions about Trump adviser Roger Stone’s links to WikiLeaks, which was distributing the material stolen by Russia; demonstrated contacts between Trump’s business and the Russian government as he explored a deal in Moscow.
The probe occurred behind closed doors for months, meaning that the media broke a number of stories eventually included in the reports compiling the connections — but also meaning that some reports ended up being debunked.
When Mueller completed his work in spring 2019, Barr quickly summarized the special counsel’s final report as exonerating Trump on the question of possible coordination with Russian actors. In reality, that’s not what the report said.
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” the report reads, “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
When Mueller testified before Congress that July, he clarified that point.
“The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” he said, adding that “we did not address ‘collusion,’ which is not a legal term. Rather, we focused on whether the evidence was sufficient to charge any member of the campaign with taking part in a criminal conspiracy. It was not.”
In other words: There were contacts and mutually beneficial goals, but not enough of an interaction to prove conspiracy. That’s far from a complete exoneration of Trump’s team. Moreover, it demonstrates that there was substance to the investigations themselves.
Trump fought to undercut that fairly obvious determination. To do so, he and his allies have cherry-picked anecdotes and interactions from which they’ve built a competing narrative. They’ve seized on erroneous media reports, though those were both limited in scope and independent of the actual investigation findings. They’ve focused on a dossier of reports from a former British intelligence officer that were almost universally treated as dubious from the outset by newsgathering operations (though, admittedly, not by opinion columnists). They’ve elevated text message exchanges between two former FBI officials involved in the probes as proof that the investigations were biased from the outset (though the Justice the Department’s inspector general disagreed). They’ve argued that surveillance warrants obtained to track Page’s activity were improperly obtained, though the warrants in question weren’t obtained until after he left the campaign and came only shortly before Election Day that year.
There are dozens of ancillary claims that are grafted onto this framework and various flavors in which the claims above are offered, but none detract from the central point. There were legitimate questions about what Russia was doing. Investigations reinforced that there were suspicious contacts between Trump’s team and Russian actors — some of which are still unresolved — and that there was a deliberate effort by Russia to influence the election. Some of the leads went dry, which is why investigations are conducted, but people went to prison or are currently under indictment.
Contrast all of that with Trump’s voting “fraud” claims.
Here, too, Trump’s side is relying on cherry-picking. Its purported evidence of fraud in key states is largely a mishmash of first-person claims about vote-counting and eyebrow-raising at the actual outcome of the vote. There’s been no credible evidence of fraud presented. There has been an enormous amount of noncredible evidence ginned up, however, most of which has been quickly rejected by courts or debunked by actual authority figures.
What’s important to note is that the media has vetted a large number of these claims. We’ve read the affidavits. We’ve watched the videos. We’ve considered the statistical and historic “anomalies.” In no case has any claim withstood even light scrutiny, much less the sort of scrutiny it would need to withstand to invalidate thousands of legally cast votes.
This is the point at which we get to a fascinating aspect of the conservative echo chamber: Volume of reporting is used as a substitute for importance. Because the media at large isn’t obsessing over and over about debunked claims — because they’ve been debunked — it is criticized for not paying attention to the claims at all. Because Fox and others air the same debunked claims over and over, inviting other people on to talk about them over and over and giving their pundits space to talk about them over and over, this is seen as reinforcing the issue’s importance. It’s how the alternate reality of the Russia investigation was created: Constant reiteration of baseless or irrelevant claims gave them a sense of importance that they objectively didn’t deserve. Then other claims built on that, and here we are.
The response to the points made above are entirely predictable. I will be criticized for having ignored what the reader views as evidence clearly proving either that the Russia probe wasn’t substantive or that Trump’s fraud claims are. This article itself probably will be grafted onto the alternative narrative that Trump’s defenders have created, proof either that I’m unfairly inflating the Russia investigations or downplaying the fraud ones. That’s how all of this works: The rhetoric, not the evidence, drives the beliefs. The evidence is then Play-dohed into shape.
There’s one other point worth making. A central part of both efforts is that there’s a silver bullet just over the horizon. The investigation by now-special counsel John Durham will prove that the Russia probe was a hoax. A probe of voting machines will prove that votes were shifted from Biden to Trump. Maybe. Or, maybe, when those things don’t happen, the silver bullet will simply become something else.
After all, it’s the argument that Trump’s defenders want to bolster, not reality.